Go your own way?

One band that has long showcased the value of managing differences and capitalizing on conflict—a key differentiator of successful business teams—is Fleetwood Mac, especially the 2.0 version that began with the addition of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham in 1975.

The eclectic combination of singer-songwriters Nicks, Buckingham, and Christine McVie—supported by the robust rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie—was well captured on their first album together (simply titled Fleetwood Mac) which yielded hit singles “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” and “Rhiannon.” What had been a quasi-successful British blues band (featuring virtuosi guitar players) was quickly transformed into a charismatic song-oriented LA pop/rock phenomenon, thanks to saturated airplay of their LP in the US.

But behind the scenes the romantic partnership of Buckingham and Nicks had begun to unravel, as well as the marriage of Christine and John McVie—and even Mick Fleetwood’s marriage! (In fact, people just listening to their music began to report marital difficulties.) By the time the band recorded their next LP—Rumours—the song lyrics (and album title) told the whole story: “Players only love you when they’re playing”; “Shackin’ up is all you want to do”; “I’m just second hand news”; “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”

Yet the sturm und drang of these romantic meltdowns provoked the band to achieve new heights of creative and commercial success, which has driven sales of Rumours to nearly 50 million units to date. They successfully exploited their personal—and at times artistic—conflict to become one of the most popular bands of the era, with frequent reunion tours up through the present.

The lesson should not be lost in mainstream business, where the most successful enterprises (such as Google and Apple) encourage clashing viewpoints and dissenting opinions among their teams to generate new ways of thinking. (Google came into existence through the verbal sparring between founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.) Dissension—or what Nissan Design’s founder Jerry Hirschberg called “creative abrasion”—is something business teams (product teams, departmental teams, cross-functional project teams, employee relations teams, executive teams) should pursue. Avoiding dissent is a warranty for failure.

Two weeks ago I saw Fleetwood Mac (minus Christine McVie who had retired) in concert at Boston’s TD Garden. One of the most powerful moments of the show occurred when Nicks playfully wagged her finger at Buckingham when he sang the lines “Shackin’ up is all you want to do“ in “Go Your Own Way”—Buckingham’s vindictive song about Nicks during the couple's rancorous break-up in 1976. 37 years later they could laugh about it.

By contrast, notice—in the live video below—Nicks’s demeanor when Fleetwood Mac was performing the song in 1977, shortly after Buckingham wrote it. At the time she was known to despise the tune and made little attempt to conceal it. (The look she gives Lindsey at the :05 mark says it all.) Nevertheless, professional that she was, she sang great harmony on it.

Ironically the band members did everything except go their own way in the years following their personal breakups. They knew that the band had to come first, that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts—and so they stuck around and slugged it out, using their anger at each other as motivation. Seeing them in concert now, you know they’re happy with the decision they made then.

Leaving the concert that evening I was quickly reminded of conflict of a different sort. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attacks, automatic-weapons-wielding police were patrolling the streets outside the Garden to protect the public from further destruction by two profoundly disturbed individuals. (An example of internal conflict that went un-managed for too long.)

I mention Fleetwood Mac in an earlier post here.


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10 Comments

  1. Yeah, the abrasion part is easy! LOTS of people I know have that down.

    The trick, as you know, in an organizational environment is to offer thoughts and ideas that are abrasive—i.e. ideas that rub up against against others' ideas and sometimes the accepted wisdom of the group—without being personally abrasive (or insulting). I try to get people see that as a practical matter they're more likely to gain acceptance of their heterodox idea if they pay attention to how they're communicating it.

    1. One of the 20 books I've read in the past year (perhaps Jonah Lehrer's "Imagine" ?) suggested opening solution-finding sessions with one preposterously wrong suggestion. It sets our minds up to judge less, and look at a wider range of possibilities. (That session also pretty thoroughly debunks traditional brainstorming.)

      1. I'll have to do a post on brainstorming one of these days. It's getting a bad rap lately. In the hands of the unskilled it often doesn't work, but done RIGHT, it's amazingly effective—as Tom Kelley points out in his books (The Art of Innovation, The Ten Faces of Innovation). Ideo has built its career on brainstorming.

        Don't know if you heard that Lehrer's Imagine—which folks in our industry were raving about—was pulled by the publisher for fabricated quotes and plagiarism. Lehrer's follow-up book, How We Decide, was just pulled for the same reason. Oops.

        1. Lehrer made some stupid choices, to be sure. But plagiarizing himself (he reused stuff for two paying clients) and making up Dylan anecdotes (which I'm still trying to grasp; like THAT wouldn't come out?) doesn't shake my confidence in the underlying science.

          "Brainstorming done right" would be a great conversation. Count me in.

          (When the first band I was ever in used to do Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen I always introduced it as "a medley by Peter Green and Gabor Szabo." The other guys were never quite amused.)

    1. 1.0 had its merits (and gained a loyal fanbase in Europe), but see my comments below.

      Yup, my book has lots of stories about my encounters with interesting bands (Cream, Grateful Dead, Ike & Tina Turner Revue, etc.) which I hope will survive the scythe of the Grim Copy Editor.

      I never met any of the Fleetwood Mac gang (tho I was invited to join an LA band with Waddy Wachtel that Lindsey was jamming with), but I knew lots of folks close to the band. Re version 1.0 (or 1.2 or whatever): I love the story about Jeremy Spencer going out to get a magazine one day and never returning. Must have been a good read.

  2. What a load of ill-thought out, ignorant claptrap. OK, that's got your attention. Well, one bit of it the post was, anyway...

    "...an undistinguished British blues band..." ?!?!?!?!?

    John! Fleetwood Mac version 1.0 (with the peerless Peter Green on board) gave us "Albatross," "Green Manalishi" and "Oh Well." They gave us great covers of "Need Your Love So Bad" and "Black Magic Woman." As if this wasn't enough, they gave us one of the Top 10 greatest records of all time, the heartbreaking and exquisitely played, "Man of The World."

    Undistinguished?

    1. To quote (or paraphrase) Jason Robards in All the President's Men: "I stand by my story." :-)

      FM always had a knack for finding great guitarists (and Mick might be rock's greatest talent scout). But great guitarists don't a great band make. I can think of a half dozen blues bands of the same era that were more original — and distinguished.

  3. Mark (and David): after listening to some early Mac tunes I decided to make a small correction to my post, to acknowledge Fleetwood Mac’s early guitar players. (As you know, we’re highly responsive to customer feedback at BLFR!)

    Nevertheless, in regard to 1960s blues: Putting aside the original GREATS and their bands (like Muddy, Buddy & Junior, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, etc.), if I wanted to listen to white interpreters I’d go first to the Bluesbreakers or the Butterfield Band. Or Cream for a rockier, flashier take. Or the Blues Project for a more innovative take. The pre-1975 Mac had its share of guitar greats, and the rhythm section was always solid. But by the mid-70s Mick & John had something really unique to support – three original singer/songwriters (including two gals with very different styles and a one-of-a-kind impressionistic rock guitarist).

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