Flipping through some back pages

I came across an old YouTube clip featuring six of the biggest dent-makers in classic rock on the same stage at Madison Square Garden in October, 1992. The occasion was the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration of Bob Dylan as a recording artist.

In this video Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison in consecutive order sing lead vocal on Dylan’s iconic “My Back Pages”—which Dylan wrote three decades earlier about his repudiation of the political idealism he had become famous for.

Two things I looked for in this performance:

    1. How the performers would handle the surrealistic and at times barely intelligible lyrics to the song. It turned out that many of the singers had to read the lines on the monitors in front of them, even though they had only one verse each to remember!

    2. How well these highly accomplished stars would collaborate. In the end they fully complemented each other, with no “upstaging.” But this was more than a reflection of their maturity and their mutual respect for Dylan. I realized that all seven of these celebrities were likely INTROVERTS. What are the odds of that? (More on that later.)

I should mention a couple of business lessons we can abstract from this (because that’s what we do here) based on the song itself:

    1. Dylan, in writing and recording “My Back Pages” in 1964, was announcing a major pivot in his career at the time—only two years into his recording life—to move away from songs of social protest and to explore more personal themes (which he did through more abstract flow-of-consciousness imagery). In business this could be seen as rebranding, or even reinvention, which individuals, teams, and organizations undertake for a variety of reasons.

    For instance, their previous products or services may not be selling. Or they can see the market is shifting and they want to get in front of the change. Or they’ve become identified with something they want to leave behind—as was the case with Dylan when he felt boxed in by his perceived role as spokesman of social causes.

    Whatever the reason, this pivot can feel disruptive to customers (and even employees), but the initiators of the change often see what others don’t see down the road. It’s always risky, but so is standing pat and sticking with the same formula even if it’s been successful. This is something YOU may want to consider, even—or especially—if what you’ve been doing has worked just fine in the past.

    2. In “My Back Pages” Dylan confesses to a more rigid, “black and white” view of life that he previously had to “preach” to others and aggressively “protect.” Wisdom comes with age and seeing many sides of an issue comes with wisdom.

    In business we have to realize that no one has a proprietary claim on the truth. The willingness to recognize the legitimacy of others’ viewpoints is necessary for any team or organization to function well. And the better you are at listening to others’ beliefs/perspectives the more likely your team will succeed—whatever your definitions of success are.

    Tough decisions—which not everyone may like—will still need to be made (whether collaboratively or by executive directive), but if they're based on input derived from a rich mix of perspectives the decisions are obviously more likely to be smart ones.

To say a little more about personality traits… At first I was struck by the different performance styles of Eric Clapton and Neil Young in the video, who each took impressive lead guitar breaks. Clapton was stoic, passive, exhibiting no facial expression, while standing behind everyone else—while Young was shaking and gyrating near the front of stage, wailing on his guitar’s vibrato bar.

But then I realized that both guitarists never looked up and never fully established eye contact with the audience. (I’m sure no one would complain because their guitar-playing connected.) Then I noticed that none of the lead vocalists fully connected visually with the audience. (Also, not a problem, because the singers fully bonded with each other and the joy of that was communicated to the audience.)

That got me thinking about introverts (which I’ve posted about before) and how accomplished leaders in the public arena—and successful musical performers—are often introverts. (In the Myers-Briggs personality system an introvert is distinguished as someone who gets “energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions” in his or her inner world—and who usually takes time to reflect before acting.)

And why might this be important? Because if you’re an introvert, you may mistakenly believe you don’t have the right stuff to be a leader. (Introverts aren’t necessarily shy—and even those who are can learn to overcome it.) A quick look at introverts who have changed the face of commerce and culture in the last half-century should pop that illusion.

In the hi-tech world alone we have introverts like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer, Larry Page, and Elon Musk. (It’s hotly debated whether Steve Jobs was.) Introverted shakers and music in pop music have included Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, Kurt Cobain, Christine Aguilera, and Lady Gaga. Whoda' thunk?

Business lesson #3 is that introverts too can lead the way.

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  1. Belated footnotes...

    • The supporting cast on stage in the video is an all-star lineup in its own right: Booker T. on keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar, Duck Dunn on bass, Jim Keltner and Anton Fig on drums, and G.E. Smith (serving as music director) on guitar.

    • Some commentators at ExpectingGrain.com (an excellent site for Dylanphiles) characterized many of the lines in “My Back Pages” as “cringeworthy” and not up to Dylan standards. Personally I love the music, the refrain (“I was so much older then…”), and the overall message—despite some clunky lines. But “liberty is just equality in school” is one for the ages. “Fearing not I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preached” and “My guard stood hard when abstract threats…deceived me into thinking I had something to protect” aren’t too shabby either.

    • It's worth noting that George Harrison was given the honor of singing the final verse. Interestingly, Dylan chose the fifth verse for himself, including the lines "the mongrel dogs who preach."

  2. Some of the performers you mention might be "ambiverts" -- who display some of the characteristics of both introverts and extroverts.

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