Curdled Cream: lessons from Eric Clapton and associates

Cream-Psychedelic-Supermarket-Small I seem to be celebrating a lot of anniversaries this year, but today marks the quinquagenary of the most memorable event of my music career: opening the show for Eric Clapton’s Cream in New Haven, Connecticut, while they were riding high on the success of their Top 10 single, “Sunshine of Your Love.”

As I mentioned in a post ten years ago, my folk-rock band, The Morning, based in New Haven, jumped at the chance to be on the bill with the hottest (and arguably the first) “supergroup” of its day, featuring the most critically acclaimed rock guitarist in the world, Eric “Slowhand” Clapton.

But what I dimly grasped that night became a seminal insight later—and a core pillar of my business consulting today. I witnessed first hand what had been widely reported in the pop music press. Cream was a band riven by conflict. But, more importantly, that dissension was part of what fueled their greatness—as is the case with many creative teams.

That Wednesday evening, when I strolled into a sold-out Woolsey Hall on the Yale campus, I was looking forward to meeting Eric Clapton (aka “God”), bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker—all musical idols of mine. But after my band performed its opening set, Cream and their road manager arrived, sullenly walked into our shared dressing room, and promptly kicked us out. (They had urgent business to attend to, which I wryly reported in the previous post). The vibes were heavy, to say the least. These celebrities were decidedly non-communicative with each other and seemed to be living in different worlds—which was evident on and off the stage. And yet, for the time, it worked!

Let me explain.

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When employees quit and stay

sleep-2324347__480 When I was happily employed as a full-time musician many years ago, I noticed the difference between those who played music as if their life depended on it and those who didn’t.

Maybe I was just lucky, but the former description fit nearly all the rock musicians I shared a stage with, from talented local bar bands to concert headliners such as Sly and the Family Stone and The Grateful Dead. These musicians performed and rehearsed with urgency, with something at stake. They weren’t always playing for their livelihood but they always seemed to be playing for their life.

Unfortunately I also knew a few musicians—usually in wedding or "general business" bands—who would actually nod off during a rehearsal or gig! (Just for the record, I have nothing against wedding bands—or weddings for that matter.) I remember when a leader of a cocktail quartet complained to me about his drummer: “I wish he would just quit.” I could only respond: “I think he did a long time ago.”

This is all too often the case in business at large. You probably know plenty of workers who “mail it in.” Their life is not in their work. In fact, surveys show an alarming number of employees in most organizations are mailing it in.

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