I had the good fortune to be interviewed last month by author Trevor Gay ("Simplicity is the Key," "The Nine Fruits of Leadership") at his terrific site that HR World has chosen as one of the "top one-hundred management & leadership blogs." Here's an edited version of that interview.
TG: I know you have had a fascinating and interesting career. I would love to hear a quick summary of some of the stuff you have done.
JOL: After several years of college—and six years of studying Ancient Greek—I abruptly left academia (and a promising future teaching dead languages) to play rock & roll full-time.
My campus rock band in New Haven had been picking up some prestige bookings in New York—opening for acts like the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Sly & the Family Stone, and Joni Mitchell—and we were invited to play the Berkeley Folk Festival that summer. So the band and I didn't need much convincing to take the leap.
We never got the recording contract we wanted but we had a great ride for the next year—as did my subsequent "almost famous" bands.
Fifteen years later I changed course again and landed in the training and development world. I lucked out and got to study or work with luminaries including Werner Erhard, Peter Senge, and Fernando Flores. Another fifteen years later I was hired to consult under the Tom Peters umbrella.
Oh, and in the early '80s I took some time off to run for US President as an independent—though that was mostly for the fun of it and to write a book about it, which is mercifully out of print. A lot of folks who saw me on tv in 1980 still haven't made the connection to me now, which allows me to keep working.
TG: I was born in 1952 and so I was brought up in England as a teenager in the '60's on the Beatles and the music revolution. We rightly remember with great nostalgia the '60s. Was it really such an influential decade or do we just have rose-tinted spectacles when looking back?
JOL: Every decade is influential in different ways of course.
What interests me is the contribution the '60s made to popular culture, especially in the area of pop music. If rock & roll was born in the '50s, it got a license to drive in the mid-'60s.
Rock wasn't taken seriously at first—despite the genius of songwriters like Chuck Berry. But after the Beatles & Dylan showed up, the universe changed.
Someday I may write about the summer of 1965, the tipping point. Everybody was trying to outdo everybody else then—the Stones, Byrds, Beach Boys, Kinks. All at once you were hearing songs like "Satisfaction," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Help," "Mr Tambourine Man," "Help Me Rhonda." Not to mention some great Motown hits.
TG: What do you see as the greatest challenges for leaders in the future, John?
JOL: In business, government, education, healthcare, even religion I see leaders trying to make sense of a world turned upside down… with user manuals that are obsolete.
What's desperately needed is some independent thinking, and some courage to improvise. This is not a good time to rely on traditional management wisdom, economics orthodoxy, political dogma. Clinging to ideology can destroy everything. The wise men in robes don't have the answer. That, in part, is what my book is about.
TG: Tell us about the book.
JOL: Well, it's turning into my life work, given how long I've been hacking away at it.
My focus is on business lessons we can learn from rock & roll bands. The book identifies six ways in which the great rock & roll bands are exceptional business teams:
- 1 They're radical innovators and risk-takers.
- 2 They're passionate and inspired about their work—and they have fun.
- 3 They manage differences and capitalize on conflict.
- 4 They create a distinct identity and brand.
- 5 They're ambitious, focused, and result-driven, despite stereotypes to the contrary.
- 6 They're highly autonomous and independent-minded.
Then I show how to instill—or liberate—these abilities in our organizational teams.
And I argue that without an infusion of these qualities many of our beleaguered organizations and institutions, ill-equipped to compete in this crazy economy, are headed for obsolescence or irrelevance.
To keep it interesting I illustrate my points with lots of stories and anecdotes from boardrooms, bars, and recording studios. It will be a business book you can dance to.
Hopefully I'll finish it this year. I'm a slow writer, but maybe it will appeal to all the slow readers out there.
TG: Have you any plans to come back to England?
JOL: I'd like to go tonight, but I'm knee-deep in other projects.
London is one of my favorite cities. The last time I was there in 2002 I played guitar at an entrance to the Tube just for the fun of it, and I happened to leave my guitar case open.
A homeless woman came along and threw in a few pence. Something told me I should just accept it with gratitude, so I did. For one hour I was part of that street community and they took care of me. I'll always remember that snapshot of London.
After that I made my pilgrimage to Liverpool to pay tribute to the Beatle gods.