Leaders as talent farmers

This week I'm reprising a post from five years ago on growing leaders.

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I came across an old Rolling Stone article on the Police—the '80s rock trio that completed a 15-month, 358-million-dollar reunion tour in 2008. (My first band did a 358-dollar tour, which is almost the same thing.)

In the article, drummer Stewart Copeland was singing the praises of Sting, the lead singer of the band who originally broke up the group in 1984 (at the height of its glory) to begin his triumphant solo career.

But instead of being resentful of the superstar status Sting achieved on his own, Copeland actually took pride in it because—as he explained—he was the one who discovered Sting back in 1976. "Sting's my guy! I found him. I'm proud of him. When they shouted his name at shows, I was like, 'Yeah, that's my guy.'"

Copeland, you see, identified himself as a talent scout, not just as a drummer or band member. That way Sting's accomplishments became his accomplishments.

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Bands not in harmony

One of the counterintuitive business lessons I gathered from nearly two decades of playing in rock bands was how conflict helps teams.

Not just in my own bands, but also in the many groups I shared a stage with, hung out with, or studied from a distance.

Conflict was the crucible in which these musicians honed their craft, built their identity, and created their products.

I don't simply mean “dealing with differences.” I'm talking dissension, disagreement, even discord. That kind of conflict can generate the frictional sparks that ignite creativity, inspiration, and energy. (It also seems to increase a team’s resilience—as if by fortifying its immune system against future threats.)

Legendary bands from the earliest classic rock era (e.g., Kinks, Who, Cream, Zeppelin) to later times (Guns N’ Roses, Blur, Oasis, Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) are well-known for their ferocious intraband squabbles—which helped fuel their musical fire.

Ray Davies of the Kinks recently observed:

In rock, there has to be an element of conflict. We wouldn’t have made “All Day and All of the Night” without that aggression. It gives you an edge, and the bands that lasted the longest had that edge to begin with.

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Begin with the end in mind

Fifty years ago this week The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit #1 in America. It marked the beginning of the end of the Old Order.

To some (including my Latin teacher at the time) it foretold the fall of Western Civilization. To others (including me) it foretold the resurrection of rock & roll—and the obliteration of the pop pablum and banal blandness that AM radio (and what else?) had been serving up to us. Suffice it to say, popular music—and culture—would never be the same.

Hyperbole? Check out here how The Beatles bulldozed the musical landscape, including the traditional Hit Parade, curtailing the careers of many middle-of-the-road crooners, surfers, and novelty songsters.

In Britain The Beatles had already scored four #1 rock & roll hits in 1963, but it was January ‘64 when the Fabs broke through on the US charts and became a global phenomenon. By April they occupied the top five slots on the Billboard Hot 100—an unprecedented accomplishment—displacing far fluffier fare!

I often use The Beatles to illustrate many of the “success traits” that top-tier rock bands share with the best business teams, but let me focus on one here. The Beatles were driven, with a monomaniacal focus on the end goal: being the biggest band in the world. They were going to make an impact. Their motto was “to the toppermost of the poppermost”—or "being bigger than Elvis.” (In business-speak we’d say they had an “action orientation” and a “results bias”!) They obviously enjoyed the ride as it unfolded, but their focus was always on the final prize. And they were in perpetual motion to achieve it.

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Let's play, seriously!

From time to time I get incredulous reactions from colleagues and clients to my thesis that business teams have a lot to learn—regarding creativity, passion, independent thinking, and more—from the great rock & roll bands.

Some might say that this trivializes the significant challenges that businesses face. After all, business teams do important work, while musical groups...play.

Exactly.

What business teams frequently lack is a sense of play, or more precisely serious play (which happens to be the title of Michael Shrage’s wonderful classic, written in 2000, on innovation and prototyping). Playful activity—fooling around, trying stuff out, screwing things up—is required for innovative work. Yet in business we also want to be serious (intentional, focused) about it, because there’s always something at stake.

“Our brains are hardwired for play," says entrepreneur Steve Keil. "Evolution has selected over millions and billions of years for play, in animals and humans.” In his TED talk “A Manifesto For Play,” Keil makes an eloquent case for the biological necessity—and business practicality—of play. His talk is directed at his native Bulgarian culture, but the message is universal. (If you can't watch it all, pick it up at the 7:25 mark.)

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