Who gains from conflict?

Great rock bands seem to be case studies in harnessing conflict—a team skill I prize above all others in business these days.

Why? Because if we can't manage the inevitable discord among individuals on our teams, the other qualities we need—creativity, enthusiasm, ambition, independent thinking, etc.—will be suppressed or squandered.

Now if there's one band that mastered the art of leveraging conflict, it's The Who—the fiery quartet that exploded out of the London Mod scene in the mid-'60s to become the most exuberant performers of twentieth century rock.

What you may not know is that the surviving members of the original band—guitarist/songwriter Peter Townsend and lead singer Roger Daltrey—did not get along with each other for much of their career. Yet the un-throttled passion of the Who's music—as captured below in a 1978 video—speaks volumes for their ability to capitalize on that interpersonal tension to produce extraordinary concerts and recordings. (For anyone interested in HOW they managed to pull that off, we can explore that in the comments.)

Interestingly, many other top bands of that same era had a similar capacity to embrace conflict over the long-term—including the Kinks, Pink Floyd, and even the cherubic Beach Boys—whose internecine struggles provided an interesting harmonic to their "Good Vibrations."

In the case of The Beatles, I would argue that the creative conflict between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, well managed until the band's later years, was the source of their astonishing productivity. (Other exceptionally talented bands of the time, including Cream, Buffalo Springfield—featuring regular flare-ups between Stephen Stills and Neil Young—and the original Byrds, had disappointingly short careers precisely because they could not manage their internal differences for long.)

Jerry Hirshberg, while at Nissan Design International, coined the term "creative abrasion" to describe the friction between strong individuals with opposing views which can generate "creative sparks" yielding innovative ideas and solutions.

In his book The Creative Priority he contends this creative abrasion, though uncomfortable to deal with and challenging to manage, is something to pursue—because "the prioritization of creativity requires the accommodation of dissent from the prevailing view."

Simple to grasp but messy to apply. Yet the best business teams, including the best rock bands, learn how to leverage that creative and personal discord.

And here's a different video of The Who, which better captures the joy of their performances.


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20 Comments

  1. Great article John,
    i agree that the discord serves to sharpen the idea, and its ability to be communicated.

    A little resistance early and often yields stronger premises and stucture to the idea/plan/argument, (the same as your body, a tree, a social network...)

    John J. Smith

  2. Thanks, John. That "resistance" can take the form of creative questioning, as Hirshberg argues: "Groups exhibit the same anxiety and overeagerness for quick solutions as individuals do, and tend to be quite skilled at moving into problem-solving modes. But prolonging the time a group remains in a state of ambiguity by urging creative questioning requires some counterintuitive strategies for leadership." Amen.

  3. Great post, John. I loved the opening and the relevant examples that followed.

    "Great rock bands seem to be case studies in harnessing conflict—a team skill I prize above all others in business today. (Why? Because if we can’t manage the inevitable discord among individuals on our teams the other qualities we need—creativity, enthusiasm, ambition, independent thinking, etc.—will be suppressed or squandered.)"

    This is great. Thank you.

  4. finally. i thought you retired. if you're going to talk up the who you have to mention the late-great keith moon who was a real loose cannon on the interpersonal battlefield of that group.

  5. It's interesting that your examples came from the 60's and 70's. It might reflect your, errr, venerable age but then I got to wondering about more recent bands that fit the description. I struggled (but maybe that's because I'm an old fart):

    Oasis: the Gallaghers have what we might diplomatically call a lively relationship.

    The Jesus & Mary Chain: The Reid brothers also have a, well, extremely lively relationship.

    I wonder if it's a generational thing as well? A lot of 'artistes' today seem to want to go it alone or with another band at the slightest problem. Maybe it's simply older acts / people being more prepared to compromise and put up with other people's issues for the sake of the group? Think about how acts so few bands from the 80's and 90's have stuck it out but, like The Police, have come together so well in later years, albeit they then went their separate ways before they started murdering each other again!

  6. Golly gosh, Judith. I like your blog too! :-)

    Henry, Keith Moon definitely contributed to the team turmoil (understatement) but since he's been gone Pete and Roger have still acted as belligerents with each other, while continuing to perform together! 45 years of harnessing THAT conflict is no small achievement.

    Mark, as my frame of reference I usually write about the most influential bands from the 60s & 70s, whose music has stood the test of time and has made the biggest impact. I could have pulled a couple more bands from that pool to make the point about conflict - especially the Police (who came out of the late 70s), the Eagles, and the Ramones. I intentionally left a few out. The Grateful Dead had plenty of creative tension in the band but not so much interpersonal antagonism. I think the same holds true for U2. The Rolling Stones had every kind of drama in the beginning, but after Brian Jones was kicked out I think they got along pretty well (except when Mick and Keith were chasing the same women). BTW, I'm always looking for great bands from the last two decades to write about - not just talented bands, but ones who changed the trajectory of rock - but I just don't find as many examples. (Nirvana would be one.) Of course this is all subject to interpretation, which makes it all the more fun to debate.

  7. Hi John - Sporting team also harness tension and disagreement. When my beloved Manchester United won a unique treble of three major trophies in 1999 the team contained two players Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham who – it is well known – didn’t speak to each other ‘off the pitch’ but when they crossed the touchline for the matches they became team mates and worked together brilliantly for the good of the team for the 90 minutes. When they finished they reverted to the ‘not speaking’ mode. The team manager Sir Alex Ferguson was able to get them to channel and focus their talent for the good of the team and forget the tension whilst they were performing.

    I guess this is the same among bands is it John?

    BTW - Great to see The Eagles mentioned among the great bands of course :- )

  8. Trevor, is there any subject of conversation that you CAN'T use Manchester United to make a point with? :-) Actually there are lots of championship American sports teams that had key members who didn't get along with each other. The NY Yankees of the late 1970s come to mind.

    I just remembered: there have been several musical duos whose members were at war with each other (that must have been GREAT fun!): Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. And then there was the brilliant songwriting partnership of Burt Bacharach & Hal David ("What the World Needs Now Is Love") that exploded in litigation in the 1970s.

  9. You have finally ‘sussed’ me out John – Manchester United and The Eagles – the limit of my vocabulary my friend :- )

    WOW! The Everly Brothers - now you ARE talking Sir! – They were terrific together – were there any better harmony duos in the history of popular music John?

    The Everly Brothers singing “Let it be me” is one of my all time favourite ‘soppy’ songs!

  10. Trevor, I was in the Everly Brothers Fan Club as a young tyke, had all their albums and singles, and loved getting autographed pix of Don and Phil. I finally saw them live 30 years later, opening for the Beach Boys at an outdoor concert in New Hampshire. I heard they still play together occasionally - and get along better than they used to!

  11. Good to hear they get on better now John - I guess Old Rockers never die they just lose their hotel wrecking mentality :-)

  12. So what's your theory about The Who's longevity in the face of such discord? Maybe they just couldn't walk away from a cash cow. That kept plenty of other bands around.

  13. Sergey, the vast majority of full-time rock bands I've known haven't stayed together for decades, especially the ones with significant creative and personal differences. That's why it's worth spotlighting the great ones that have persevered. Now the Who technically "disbanded" in the 1980s, but they've had so many reunion gigs and tours since then (including the current one) I consider them a 40-year old band. (3 of the 4 original members were still at it until 2002, when John Entwhistle died, and the 2 original front men, Townshend and Daltry, are still playing together.) They may be the ONLY rock band that you can check off for: (1) exceptional longevity (4 decades); (2) high musical quality (beloved by critics for their performances AND recordings); (3) commercial reach; and (4) significant internal dissension (though that's not so easy to measure).

    I'm sure money was a major motivator for getting back on the road each time. But the HOW is more interesting to me than the WHY. How could they put up with SO much discord - especially in the 1960s & 1970s when Keith Moon was part of the already-combative mix of Townshend and Daltrey? The short version of my answer is that they didn't suppress their complaints with each other but loudly and angrily hashed them out on the spot - often in the dressing room, right after getting off stage. This seemed to work for the combustible personalities involved who needed to forcefully express themselves. There was less of the passive aggression that is so common in mainstream business teams today. (In fact there was NOTHING passive about the Who.)

    The vehemence - and occasional violence - with which the members of the Who confronted each other is not what I would recommend for other teams. But the habit of "talking straight" with each other, not gossiping and complaining behind the back, being willing to openly call each other to account - THAT is certainly worth emulating. Great teams know how to do that.

  14. michael j was another performer who had a pretty long run - and he was getting ready to dance his brains out on another tour at age 50. maybe his own 'internal discord' did him in. sad day. - zj

  15. Yeah, Michael generated enough internal conflict by himself! But what a performer.

    I mostly discuss bands here - who are great examples for business teams - but it's worth mentioning that Michael always had a very professional team around him - starting with the Jackson 5 and their producers. Even the solo stars depend on great teams.

  16. The J5's "I Want You Back" was one of the most innovative hits in pop music history, with brilliant arrangement & production. The band had a string of terrific singles in the 70s. But much of the credit should go to the writers & producers as well as to the world-class Motown studio musicians (the "Funk Brothers").

    Yes, the behind-the-scenes family story was not pretty, including reports of repeated physical abuse by the father against the children - which would shed light on Michael's later problems.

  17. Townsend and Daltry - what was their main conflict, if there was ONE?

    Fleetwood Mac also wrote some good music using the affairs and break ups in the band.

    Its good to be reminded that personality conflicts can have a positive side! Thanks John.

    Gerri

  18. Gerri, Townshend & Daltrey came from different universes. Pete a former art student and street intellectual, Roger a former sheet metal worker and brawler. Roger also played the heavy in trying to keep his band mates clean. Pete & Roger never seemed to get along but they each appreciated the other's talent.

    The Fleetwood Mac story - once Buckingham Nicks joined the group - really merits a separate post. John & Christine McVie's marriage unravelled around the same time Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks broke up as a romantic duo. Christine, Lindsey, and Stevie all wrote nasty songs about - and to - their former lovers, which their aggrieved ex-partners had to sing and play on! Rock's greatest performing soap opera for several years. BUT they learned to "capitalize on the conflict" and the Rumors album - featuring some of their most acrimonious songs - became one of the best-selling pop albums in history. Gotta love rock & roll.

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