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Leadership lessons from maverick musicians

Business leadership lessons from maverick musicians. Over 27 years, I have synthesised lessons from world business schools with parallel insights from the world of music. In this article we sample the work of maverick musician David Bowie and mine the parallel business lessons for leaders, entrepreneurs and influencers.

Ch, Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes

David Bowie has reinvented himself several times AND taken his audience with him. Unlike many one hit wonders for which the norm is to reinvent oneself and lose your audience. The parallel lesson in business is that of changing what you do, keeping your customers AND gaining new ones rather than going out of business whilst changing.

In this CNN interview I explore some of the qualities that made Bowie a unique maverick leader.

CNN Interview with Peter Cook about David Bowie

Lesson # 1. FOCUS

David Bowie began performing music when he was 13 years old, learning the saxophone whilst he was at High School and he began playing in a number of mod bands. All these bands released singles, which were generally ignored, yet he continued performing. The following year, he released the Anthony Newley inspired music hall styled “Laughing Gnome”. Overall it took Bowie some 10 years to find his first sustained commercial success. For me this aligns well with Wallas’ 1926 notion of incubation to find your source of creativity. Many entrepreneurs do a lot of groundwork and experimentation to find their focus.

Lesson # 2. Hire people who are better than you

Bowie’s first album featured “Space Oddity”, which became a major hit single in Britain. He began miming at T.REX concerts, eventually touring with Marc Bolan’s bassist / producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson. The band quickly fell apart, yet Bowie and Ronson continued to work together.

The next album, “The Man who Sold the World” did not gain much attention. Following the release of “Hunky Dory”, featuring Ronson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, Bowie developed his most famous incarnation, “Ziggy Stardust”. Bowie quickly followed Ziggy with “Aladdin Sane”. Not only did he record a new album that year, but he also produced albums for Lou Reed, Iggy and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”, for which he also wrote the title track.

It would perhaps be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that Bowie would make a great HR manager, but perhaps that is the essential lesson here: Surround yourself with great people. Do not be frightened of people who are better than yourself – it simply helps you get better quicker. It is a lesson that many great business leaders understand fully, e.g. Sir Richard Branson.

It is less well understood by leaders in the political field.

Lesson # 3. Re-engineer

Bowie unexpectedly announced his retirement from live performances during his final show in 1973. He retreated from the spotlight to work on a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, transforming the work into “Diamond Dogs” and the hit single “Rebel Rebel”. Bowie supported the album with an American tour. As the tour progressed, Bowie became fascinated with soul music.

He subsequently refashioned his group into a soul band and revamped his image. The change took fans by surprise. “Young Americans”, released in 1975, was the culmination of Bowie’s soul obsession. It became his first major crossover hit, peaking in the American Top Ten and generating his first U.S. number one hit in “Fame”, a song he co-wrote with John Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Bowie effectively jumped 20 years ahead of Michael Hammer and James Champey and the Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) movement in about 3 months.

Being comfortable is never a recipe for success in business. Comfort breeds complacency. Make yourself uncomfortable to keep developing.

Lesson # 4. Challenge sacred cows

Once in Berlin, Bowie began painting, as well as studying art. He also developed a fascination with German electronic music, which Brian Eno helped him fulfil on their first album together, “Low”. Released early in 1977, Low was a startling mixture of electronics, pop and avant-garde. It was one of the most influential albums of the late ’70s, as was its follow-up, “Heroes”.

Peter Senge’s seminal work on single and double loop learning is relevant here in terms of becoming a Learning Organisation:

Lesson # 5. Perpetual change

In 1983, Bowie released “Let’s Dance”. He recruited Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to produce the album, giving the record a sleek, funky foundation, and hired the unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan as lead guitarist. Let’s Dance became his most successful record. HR people talk about change management at length. Bowie just gets on with it. I had the great privilege of meeting Nile Rodgers and explored his part in helping Bowie find the funk with him.

Lesson # 6. Learn from Failure

Bowie’s next project was less successful. He formed a guitar rock band called Tin Machine. They released an album to poor reviews and supported it with a small tour, which was only moderately successful. Tin Machine released a second album, “Tin Machine II”, which was largely ignored. Tin Machine contained the innovative work of Reeves Gabrels on guitar but was perhaps too far ahead for some people to latch on to.

When change does not work it is time to change again …

Lesson # 7. Partner

Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno to produce “Outside” and went on tour, co-headlining with Nine Inch Nails, to lure a younger audience, but his strategy failed. In 1996, he recorded “Earthling”, an album heavily influenced by techno and drum’n’bass. Earthling received positive reviews, yet it did not attract a new audience. Many techno purists criticised Bowie for exploiting their subculture. It seemed that his attempt to cross age and culture divides was not going to work on this occasion.

Since then, Bowie formed partnerships with a number of artists including Placebo and released a major new work in 2013 “The Next Day” to critical acclaim from a new generation as well as the older one. His final album was yet another turn in the road, working with jazz musicians amongst others.

Summary – Ch Ch Ch Changes

  1. Make radical changes even when your current strategy is successful. Bowie’s example reminds me of Handy’s idea of the double sigmoid curve in ‘The Empty Raincoat’.
  2. Hire and work with the best people you can find, especially if they are better than you.
  3. Become an expert at change and build the ultimate chameleon organisation.
  4. Constantly read the environment and engage with new movements when they are more than fads. Separate fads from long-term future trends.
  5. Learn from failure and quickly move on.
Peter Cook
Peter Cookhttp://www.humdyn.co.uk/aboutus/
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to eleven books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music.

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