Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie's Lessons on Leadership

  • Have a vision and delegate to people with complementary talents to carry it out. NPR’s recent interview with some of Bowie’s Blackstar collaborators highlights his creative process. Get a big idea, then bring in the right people whose skills differ from your own to fill in the gaps of what you can’t do yourself. Give them enough direction to achieve your goals, but trust them to run with it in their own way and don’t micromanage them. Janelle MonĂ¡e has already nailed this, but the lesson applies more generally.
  • Bravely let your freak flag fly. I first saw Bowie with his shockingly orange hair on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show. He was the strangest thing I’d on my TV in the bland suburbs, and perhaps the strangest thing I’d seen in my first decade on Earth. It clearly made an impression. If you’re going to be unconventional, then do it with conviction. Put it out there for everyone to see.
  • Know when to act like a rock star, but know when not to. When Bowie was on stage, he was captivatingly charismatic. But when he was off stage, he didn't demand to be the center of attention. My two favorite examples: I worked at Tower Records at in London in the late '80s. When Michael Jackson was in town and wanted to shop there, his minions made arrangements for all the employees to be shooed out right at closing so that he could browse privately with only the store manager present. When Bowie wanted to shop there, he walked in the door in the middle of the day (sadly, not during my shift), selected his merchandise then stood in line with everyone else and to pay for it. And before his health declined, he reportedly got out to little clubs in New York on a regular basis to see up-and-coming bands, taking it in with the rest of the punters and leaving the spotlight to the young performers. Like a normal human being. Because it’s not always about you.
  • Pay attention to your colleagues’ health needs, and be a loyal friend. When Iggy Pop’s life was sinking due to the interconnected problems of drug addiction and the Stooges’ demise, Bowie checked him into a residential mental health facility and visited him regularly during his convalescence. Iggy recovered. They decamped to Berlin, where they cowrote “China Girl” for Iggy. In the ‘80s, Bowie recorded the song for his insanely commercially successful Let’s Dance. Loyalty is not just the right thing to do, it can pay significant long-term dividends.
  • Be open to what’s new and be willing to embrace it. When promoting Never Let Me Down in 1987, Bowie endorsed Screaming Blue Messiahs as his favorite new band. Paul McCartney was asked a similar question and that time, and he hemmed and hawed trying to think of any young bands before coming up with Dire Straits, who were already old fart music compared to Screaming Blue Messiahs by that point. It’s just one example of Bowie’s keeping his ear to the ground for new sounds.
  • Use your clout to shine a light on others. When Bowie was flush with early success, he produced albums for the Stooges, Mott the Hoople and Lou Reed, drawing attention to artists on the commercial fringes. Over the years, he handpicked opening acts to expose them to his sizable audience, such as Polyphonic Spree on some dates on his final tour. He recognized that his big fanbase gave him power, and he could use it to help other artists. Sonic Youth did this on a smaller scale and earned lots of respect and loyalty for it.
  • Use your success as an opportunity to take more risks. Having a few hits can be the equivalent of earning tenure. You could keep cranking out minor variations on the formula that made you successful. Or you could use it as the freedom to explore new musical idioms. Bowie’s constant expeditions into new musical territory made each album into an event, not just excuse to embark on a lucrative tour (I’m looking at you, Rolling Stones and Madonna). He went out on limbs and made you care about what he would do next.