Who's the leader of the band?

At blfr we’re big on workforce autonomy, team independence, and front-line leadership—which rock & roll has much to teach us about.

Rock bands, after all, hire their business managers, not the other way around, so it’s never a question of who works for whom (as mentioned in a previous post). I WISH that were true in office land.

But some have argued that most rock bands have a strong internal leader—often the lead singer—who runs the show. True or false?

Well, rock bands do have leaders, but the leadership is rarely: (1) authoritarian; and (2) from just one individual.

The creative nature of music just doesn’t lend itself to a command-and-control model. And given their defiant individualism, most rock & rollers just won’t put up with autocratic leadership.

Also, it turns out that most of the best bands have had more than one leader, even at the same time! Beginning in the classic rock era, many top bands had two or more strong, dominating talents in their early years, often in creative conflict with each other. The Rolling Stones: Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. The Byrds: Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby. The Who: Peter Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Buffalo Springfield: Stephen Stills and Neil Young. The Grateful Dead claimed to have no leaders—meaning they were all leaders. When I asked Pete Best who called the shots in the early Beatles, he said, “It was all very democratic—there wasn’t one leader.”

Bands often have different leaders for different functions. For instance, the three lead singers of Fleetwood Mac—Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham—each led the band when performing his or her song. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the band’s rhythm section, were the business leaders of the band. Mick—who was also a gifted talent scout for the band—did most of the negotiating with Warner Brothers, the group’s record label.

This matches my own experience from playing in a dozen bands: there were different leaders for different aspects of the job, instead of one all-encompassing leader. One might be the creative director at rehearsals; another might take charge on stage and call out the songs; another might be the technical expert who made decisions on equipment purchases; another might be the organizational or business leader whose job was to deal with club owners or agents and distribute the pay. (This correlates well to John Maxwell’s “Law of the Niche: Each Player Has a Place Where He Adds the Most Value”—from The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork.)

Even when there was one nominal leader of a band, that person could always be outvoted. In practice it was always a democracy. Roger Daltrey—who frequently locked horns with Pete Townshend—sums it up best: “There's no such thing as the leader of a band...everybody has the power to make a band or break it.”

The distributed leadership model distinguishes the team-based band from the superstar individual with back-up musicians. Of course the latter has had its share of success, but most of the best groups fit the former model. There is something inspiring about a small team of musical players of basically equal rank—albeit with different abilities and talents—banding together in pursuit of their dreams.

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  1. My wife and I have been business partners for 10 years. We've always shared leadership, each of us taking the lead where we're best qualified.

    When traditionally-minded people hear the concept of a leaderless team, they often take it literally. You've stated the truth more accurately: a "leaderless" team allows each member to lead when they're the best choice.

    I love the juggling of leadership that went on in Procol Harum. One single lyricist who never played an instrument. Sometimes Gary Brooker was leading an orchestra, other times Robin Trower was taking country lyrics and making 'em into a rock rager, still other times Matthew Fisher was sneaking in bits and pieces from an imaginary musical -- and the band always followed, no matter how different A was from B, and B from C.

  2. Didn't know that about Procol Harum. Interesting group. I was in a band that opened for them at the Ballroom in Stratford CT, when "Whiter Shade of Pale" was all the rage.

  3. Of course rock bands are business teams. I can't think of one mega-successful band for the long term that didn't hire their manager(s). (There were a few businesses—production companies—that put together bands from scratch, so in those cases the managers hired the creative team, e.g. The Monkees. But none of those bands had much longevity.) You don't get a Beatles, Rolling Stones, U2, Green Day, that way.

    The Beatles, for instance, hired and fired their first manager and then hired Brian Epstein. Billions of dollars later they felt it worked out pretty well.

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