Trevor and I.

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.


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27 Comments

  1. Werner Erhard, eh? So you were involved in est? I think I remember you from New York, a long, long time ago.

  2. Judith, I go back and forth between this site, your site, and Trevor's site, I forget which one I'm commenting on half the time.

    Adam, yes, I am that fellow. I got into the world of training and development via est. It's still somewhat of a secret in the management world that so much of the management and leadership training that's been going on for 20 years in mainstream business has its roots in est programs going back to the 70s and early 80s - especially the language of organizational transformation and the distinctions of coaching.

  3. John - the pleasure is mine having you as a guest interviewee on my Blog - I am honoured. I even managed to get a mention for The Eagles in the full interview!

    Judith is a person I have lined up for on my list of future interviewees. It's a small world really.

  4. Oh, are you an Eagles fan? :-)

    If things work out I MAY get to see them on tour this summer. An excellent example of a band that capitalized on conflict, artistic and creative, to produce a better product.

    I look forward to your interview with Judith.

  5. How on earth did you guess I was an Eagles fan John? :-)

    It is not as if you have even seen me in the ‘Long Road Out of Eden Tour’ tee shirt I have worn almost every day since seeing them at the O2 arena, London on March 23rd (was it really than long ago?) at the launch of their latest world tour

    I hope you get to see The Eagles and I would be fascinated with your objective opinion – mine is far too subjective of course!

    The interview with Judith will be great I’m sure.

  6. I always wished John David Souther - Glenn Frey's buddy - had joined that band. But given JD's co-writing efforts with Glenn (e.g. "Best of My Love," "New Kid in Town") he was like a 5th or 6th member anyway. And Jackson Browne was another big influence on them, at least in their early days. I LOVE Jackson's version of "Take It Easy (which he co-wrote with Glenn of course.)

  7. Hey John - your knowledge of the business, as always, shines like a beacon. As there is a danger of me turning your Blog into an Eagles appreciation society I will just say my favourite six Eagles tracks (difficult to choose) of all time are probably as follows:

    1 ‘The Last Resort’ – angry political and environmental campaigner Henley at his best
    2 ‘Best of My Love’ – Beautiful love song – we’ve all been there
    3 ‘What Do I Do With My Heart?’ (from the new ‘Long Road …’ album) – Frey and Henley magnificent duet
    4 ‘Long Road Out of Eden’ – Henley poignant and powerful protest about the Iraq war
    5 ‘Life’s Bin Good to Me’ – Joe Walsh – uniquely mad and mickey take of life – you have to love Walsh!
    6 ‘Hotel California’ – All time classic – I need to say no more - the song speaks for itself – in my humble opinion one of the greatest songs ever written.

    Thanks John for allowing me the opportunity to run on about the Eagles ….. I feel I should now shut up and leave you alone to allow the real conversation to start - forgive my selfish indulgence

  8. No problem, whatsoever, Trevor. It takes me back to southern California every time you mention them.

    Hmmm, my fave Eagles tracks would probably be...
    "Best of My Love" (terrific Henley vocal)
    "New Kid in Town" (some of Henley-Frey-Souther's best lyrics),
    "I Can't Tell You Why" (terrific Schmit vocal)
    "Hotel California" (yes, a great song, and an even better record)

    Plus Jackson Browne's rendition of "Take it Easy" and Linda Ronstadt's version of "Desparado."

  9. will you be dealing with the dark side of rock 'n roll - drug abuse, etc. - in your book? that's a big part of the rock 'n roll story.

  10. I won't be FOCUSED on the abuse of chemicals in the rock & roll community but I won't ignore it either. I see just as much abuse of chemicals in the mainstream business community. I may do a separate post on this. The problem, as I see it, is the over-medicating of society in general. I would argue that legal pharmaceuticals today pose a greater threat than the illegal variety, and, among their other ill effects, are bankrupting the US healthcare system. I've been meaning to buy the book, Our Daily Meds, which goes into gruesome detail on this scandal.

  11. Hi John - another six favorites!

    1 ‘Lyin Eyes’ – What a great story
    2 ‘Love will keep us alive’ – Timothy Schmidt - amazing voice
    3 ‘Walking in the Weeds’ - classic Henley
    4 ‘Hole in the world tonight’ – poignant song post 9/11
    5 ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ – A rocker!
    6 ‘Take it to the Limit’ – one of their most under rated songs

  12. Great list, Trevor. I forgot about "Love Will Keep Us Alive." The boys certainly have an eclectic repertoire. This has made me think, who are MY "Eagles"? I guess that would be the Fab Four even though I deserted them after their initial splash (there was no competition in 63-64). A drummer at the time, I quickly moved onto the more rock & roll bands - first the Stones, later the Who. Then I was blown away by the rhythm sections of the Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (aside from the guitar virtuosity in both bands). Later, when I was performing with a Hollywood 4-piece band (the Berries, then Band of Angels) I rediscovered the Beatles: their innovative genius, especially in songwriting. I have been de-constructing their songs and recordings almost daily ever since.

    My favorite pure ROCK band, however, is probably the Who, epitomized by the classic "Who's Next" album. And I still love the early Stones (of the Brian Jones era) as well as the best of the folk/country-rock bands - especially the Buffalo Springfield and Byrds - including the Buckingham Nicks version of Fleetwood Mac and of course your Eagles.

  13. Wow! What a terrific list John – good to know there is a significant ‘Brit presence’ in your list. The Who were/are terrific – I think they still perform – and without the aid of walking frames!!! … Just joking.

    I loved The Beatles of course as previously stated many times but my favourite Brit band of all time is/was The Kinks. Ray Davies is an icon in my opinion and perhaps our most under rated song writer.

    ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ – uniquely ‘Kinks’
    ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – the first vinyl record I ever bought
    ‘Sunny Afternoon’ - What an image those lyrics present

  14. Trevor, I should not have overlooked the Kinks. In terms of great rock & roll records I consider the Big 4 to be the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks - all blessed with brilliant songwriters. Yes, Ray Davies was a unique talent. Who else could write the flawless "Lola" - one of the most clever songs in rock history?

  15. Lola was hilarious and poignant at the same time somehow. ‘You Really Got Me’ was a Kinks classic.

    Ahhhhh memories … thanks John

  16. regarding "use of chemicals" -- wouldn't you admit that the rock world lost a significant percentage of top stars at a young age because of drug abuse? In the early seventies alone we lost Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Mama Cass.

  17. Technically, I don't think the majority of those names were cases of "drug" or "chemical" abuse - but I get your point. Death of unnatural causes was especially prevalent with pop/rock stars of the 70's. (I was especially horrified by the tragic shooting deaths of John Lennon - my favorite songwriter - in 1980 and Marvin Gaye - my favorite singer - in 1984.) I don't have numbers at the moment to back this up, but I suspect this is much less true today.

    But your comment has given me a new insight: many of the great R&R bands (which is my primary focus for purposes of the book I'm working on, especially in regard to business teams) had "deteriorating assets" in terms of their own band members. It's a cold financial term to be using, but the fact is that 3 of the most successful touring bands in rock history had members whose deteriorating health affected their band's performances, resulting in the premature demise of those members. The Stones suffered with the deterioration of Brian Jones, the Who with Keith Moon, and the Grateful Dead with Pigpen - and decades later with Jerry Garcia.

    Not surprisingly I have seen much the same in the corporate environment, but it's better concealed from the public.

  18. Interesting concept for the book. Hadn't thought of rock bands as result-driven, but I suppose some of the good ones were. Doesn't seem to fit the Grateful Dead.

  19. Henry, there's a belief - popularized by songs like BTO's "Taking Care of Business" which preached "we love to work at nothing all day" - that bands are inherently slackardly. I never met a great one that was. And I lived (briefly) with the Grateful Dead at an elegant rock & roll crash pad in New Jersey in 1968. (We were all transients.) The "result" they were driven to was a higher standard of musicianship, individually and collectively. Those guys - at least in those days - rehearsed a lot, and also jammed with anyone who showed up.

  20. John - did I see your name credited on a Randy Burns' album - a member of the Sky Dog Band? Do you keep in touch with him at all? One of the mistakenly overlooked journeymen of folk rock, methinks.

  21. Mark JF, this is INDEED a small world! My college band that went onto greater things in NY and LA, the Morning - whom I reference a lot on this blog - had Randy Burns as lead singer. The band broke up when Randy thought he had a solo deal with the Beatles' Apple Records in 1969 and I joined a hard rock band. When it didn't work out for Randy with Apple, he recorded and gigged for several years with some of the former Morning members as Randy Burns & the Sky Dog Band (I was just the session drummer with them). In the 90s the Morning reconvened for a few Yale reunions. Randy is currently performing solo in New York. He still has it as a singer. For a virtually unknown folk singer, he has quite a discography - with several records on ESP, Mercury, and Polydor and rave reviews from critics and fellow artists. I hope the old band can get together for more reunion gigs with him. So how did you ever hear of the Sky Dog Band??

  22. Please don't take this the wrong way but after you'd passed through the band they released a cracking LP called "Still On Our Feet" which I heard about, I think, through ZigZag magasine - another name the past, eh? I bought it on spec, loved it and many years later copied it to CD and ripped it for my iPod. A track came up on random play the other day, I checked iTunes to see if there was any Burns material available and there was your name. So, I put 2 and 2 together and thought I'd ask you before making 4.

    Let me know if you bring the band over to London anytime...

  23. Mark JF, "Still On Our Feet" is a great album. Two of Randy's finest songs are on that: "Waverly Road" and "17 Years on Your River" The boy could write tunes, couldn't he? Brings back a few 35-year-old memories. Making it to London might be a tall order. We used to have trouble getting everyone to show up at a gig in our own town. But those were different days of course, when everybody seemed directionally challenged for some reason.

  24. Correction on what I said yesterday: "Waverly Road" was written by keyboardist, Dave Tweedy. "17 Years on the River" was Randy's. They both hold up well 3 decades later.

  25. “Not surprisingly I have seen much the same in the corporate environment, but it's better concealed from the public.” Maybe you should do a book on substance abuse in corporations. Haven’t seen that covered in business lit.

  26. Actually, Henry, it’s been dealt with in the context of addictive organizations and addictive leaders. Substance abuse is just one manifestation of that. "The Addictive Organization" by Schaef is a 1990 classic on how organizational work itself can be the addictive substance.

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