My interview in Produce Business magazine.

A few months back I was interviewed by Produce Business magazine on the ever-popular topic of leadership. I've included an excerpt below, though I didn't mention at the time the influence of rock & roll on my thinking about leadership.

Looking back on it now, I can see that I began to identify critical leadership qualities from working with or closely observing successful musicians, talent agents, business managers, equipment managers, sound engineers, record producers, club owners, and concert promoters. (Of course some of those individuals lacked one or more of these qualities, which had a negative impact on their results—but that was equally instructive to me!)

Anyway, here's a brief excerpt from the interview…

PBM: What qualities make a good leader?

JOL: Ah, so many qualities, so little time!

I could probably list a hundred of them, which would include the usual suspects on everybody's leadership list—including being ethical, having great listening skills, being able to sell your ideas, etcetera. But instead of giving you a boring taxonomy, let me mention a few qualities that maybe aren't so obvious.

First, I love leaders who don't claim to have all the answers.

Years ago there was a US presidential candidate, Jerry Brown, who when asked on the campaign trail what he would do about such and such problem would say: 'I don't really know. I'll have to give that some thought.'

Pretty heretical stuff, which got him in trouble with the pundits who had different expectations for a political leader! I found it refreshing though.

Of course as a leader you have to take a stand on things and you have to take action, but that doesn't mean you have to do so at every moment. I love the quality of 'not knowing' at times. I love the leader who has more questions than answers—ones that he or she will freely ask others, such as 'What would you do about this issue if it were your call?' or 'What can we learn from this mistake so we don't keep making it?'

Second, I love leaders who know how to build teams around them—teams that can collectively wrestle with those critical questions.

And these teams need to have real diversity to be useful—not folks cut from the same cultural cloth—so they actually think differently from each other.

Some leaders will turn decision-making over to these teams, others will use the teams to provide them advice. But either way a leader should appreciate the insights that emerge from multiple perspectives.

And I encourage dissent on the teams I coach. As Margaret Thatcher once said: 'I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job.' There has to be permission to disagree and then the ability to harness that conflict.

Third, I love leaders who see wisdom in more than one point of view. They can hear and consider many sides to an issue. They're not ideologically locked in or dug in.

(By the way, some of the greatest military leaders have been good at this—including General Dwight Eisenhower who in World War two had to manage a group of bickering commanders in Europe.)

These kinds of leaders can empathize with a wide variety of stakeholders. They can understand an employee perspective, a management perspective, an owner perspective, a customer perspective, a community perspective. They have the instincts of a mediator, while at the same time they know when it's time to make a decision and take action.

Fourth, I love leaders who know their job is to create an environment around them—we could call it a culture—where people don't walk the plank for their mistakes but where mistakes are noted, highlighted, discussed, promoted, and even celebrated—so the organization can learn the lessons from them. As my colleague Tom Peters likes to say: 'Reward excellent failures.'

Show me an organization where mistakes are punished (and I'm not talking about disciplinary matters here, I'm talking about performance mistakes) and I'll show you an organization where people cover up mistakes, no one learns from them, and everyone repeats them. Of course creating a retribution-free culture is no trivial undertaking, but the best leaders know how to do it.

Fifth, I love leaders who recognize that their job—and long-term responsibility—is to grow leaders around them.

I sat with a VP of a health benefits company once and had him look over his entire organization to see from what parts of the company the new leaders were emerging. I mean the ones who were modeling the values of the organization, the ones who were volunteering for projects, the ones who were most influential on their teams.

It turned out that nearly all the future leaders were coming from two departments where —voila!—there were two senior managers who excelled at developing people. Each of them took talent development quite seriously (and this was before people used that phrase). They spent a lot of time and energy coaching and developing their people—and reviewing their performance. And they loved doing that. That's leadership. Great leaders grow leaders.

Last, leadership is about action. Leadership involves movement, getting somewhere.

There's something inherently kinetic about leadership. Things happen around leaders. Even—or maybe especially—if it doesn't look like the leader is the one making it happen.

My favorite leadership quote is from that sixth-century-bc management consultant, Lao Tsu: 'When the best leader's work is done the people say we did it ourselves.'

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  1. John...this excerpt is pure beauty. Thank you. I love that you do not respond in the typical way, but instead address leadership qualities that stem from the formation of being. Often times these qualities are not focused on the leader as one who is also in a state of transformation, but on the necessary transformation of the led.

    Continuous transformation is needed for both leaders and the led. Often times the led leads the leader. In this reality there is no need to have all of the answers all of the time. I absolutely loved your point on leadership and action: "Of course as a leader you have to take a stand on things and you have to take action, but that doesn't mean you have to do so at every moment." This line is brilliant. This addresses the importance of wisdom understanding and timing. May I please use it with attribution, of course? :-)

    Many responses on leadership focus on the led as a queue to what is needed, as opposed to focusing on leaders who influence people by forever becoming instead of only doing. We can do a thing and not have that thing be a part of who we are. Being is different from doing. Both are needed but the approach is the distinguishing factor. What comes first is most important. Being is drawn inwardly but emanates outwardly.

    I loved your points and the way in which you expressed each. They will be with me for quite a while, as I will try to forever become the essence of each. We are forever becoming.

    Thanks, John. How can I get the entire interview?

  2. Judith, you are way too kind. I'd be happy to email you the entire interview. Ironically, I left out the part in which I mention personal transformation:

    PBM: What type of personal development is necessary to become a leader?

    JOL: At the risk of oversimplifying, whether we're talking personal or professional development, I'd start with one thing: a commitment to developing yourself. Leaders - especially in this unruly, disruptive global economy we now belong to - need to be willing to be turn themselves upside down and inside out to learn and grow. To paraphrase quality guru William Deming, it all starts with personal transformation.

  3. Based on my own experiences in the music business I haven't met many booking agents who are bastions of enlightened leadership. But maybe that's just the way it is when your working the local scene.

  4. Continued beauty, John. And this has nothing to be with being kind. I loved the interview. Do email me it in its entirety.

  5. Anonymous...perhaps what you say is true in our present time. But my many years of reading the life and time of great artists seems to indicate that agents perhaps had their talent's best interest at heart. Then again...Nijinksi did not seem to think so about the great Diaghilev. These relationships can become so personally entangled. Now, there's a leadership avoidance.

  6. Anonymous: I'd have to admit I was pretty disenchanted with the leadership (and integrity) of some small-town booking agents I had to deal with, who displayed a conflict of interest by siding with club owners in disputes with artists. On the other end of the spectrum, I was most impressed by the leadership qualities of many record producers I knew, who mastered the art of “stakeholder management.” They were somehow able to satisfy the differing needs (and tastes) of quarreling band members, band management, and—when necessary—band spouses.

  7. John, I like it better when you stick to rock. Leadership? Could there possibly be a topic that is more beat up and worked over? Does anyone know what it means anymore? Can we ban all books on the subject? Unless you can dance to it, it ain't leadership.

  8. Mr D: yes, the subject of leadership IS a tad shopworn and so much of the imparted wisdom on leadership sounds platitudinous to me. It also tends to focus on individuals as solitary agents. What I want to focus on in the months and years ahead - especially in my book (due out in 2025 at the rate I'm writing) - is the role of TEAMS in making things happen in business, using the best rock & roll bands - who have all been brilliant business teams - as my model.

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