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Sex, Leadership and Rock ’n’ Roll

Peter Cook

BUSINESS gurus are always struggling to come up with new and exciting metaphors for leadership. Years ago, for example, it was suggested that management is like conducting an orchestra. It was, in part, an attempt to justify increasing spans of control. Just as a conductor can co-ordinate up to 100 musicians, so a business leader could bring all his/her disparate employees together in perfect harmony using, instead of a baton, a clear set of objectives and key performance indicators.

Some wag speculated about how performance management and pay-for-performance might work in an orchestra. Should you be paid by the number of notes you play over the concert year? If so “scrapers” would get a lot more than “bangers” and “blowers”. Should you be paid the same regardless of whether you play the French horn or the triangle? And what about how to reward the solo bits?

In a clever and entertaining book entitled Sex, Leadership and Rock ’n’ Roll, Peter Cook, a rock musician as well as a consultant, wonders whether the music world can teach us anything about business management. Rock ’n’ roll is certainly a tough industry: the product cycles are very short indeed, the market for the product is capricious, and the business is also global, with all those culture issues. Meanwhile, the staff tend to be unreliable and unpredictable, and the consumers are highly promiscuous in their wants and whims. Managing a band may be lucrative if you have a lot of skill and luck as a talent-spotter, but it is very hard work.

Managers in the rock ’n’ roll business, therefore, have to be both highly creative and practical, as well as fast on their feet. It is no good having brilliant ideas that you can’t actually use, or being good at coming up with bad ideas. The business is very murky and you have to improve when strategy is unclear and shifting. Most importantly, you have to create lots of capacity for self-organisation to allow funky and creative people to do their thing. That is a very hard balance — giving people enough liberty to engage them fully, but not so much that they bunk off.

Rock ’n’ roll managers must also have a very good ear for the shifting zeitgeist. They need to tune in all the time to what is going on around them. And they need to be able to do serious playfulness — moving, as Cook says, from “aha” to “ha-ha” and then “cha-cha”.

In music there is the score, improvisation and the audience, while in business there is structure, creativity and customer context. In this world, innovation is the norm: it is all about converting new ideas into purposeful and profitable action.

So the sex bit is about relationships (suppliers, colleagues, customers); the drugs are motivation and energy; and the rock ’n’ roll is doing the hard work and improving on a continuous basis. And then there are the rules: style always overwhelms substance; don’t encourage cult followers; creativity without discipline rarely leads to innovation.

But for Cook there are three relevant musical metaphors. First is the orchestra, where there is central leadership but the group matters and everybody has their score. Players have to perform the role accurately and group performance is paramount. There are soloists and some structure, with sub-leaders such as the first violin or the head of the wind section (chief blower), but the conductor is clearly the chief executive. This is the world of all those solid 20th century bureaucracies.

Then there is the rock ’n’ roll business of distributed leadership, where both the group and the individual matter and where people have scores but are allowed to improvise. The individual is as important as the band. This is the 21st century.

Last on Cook’s list of metaphors is freeform jazz, with its “self-organising leadership”, organic structures and no scores — the edge of chaos. It is perhaps too frightening to contemplate this model.

And just as we have stereotypes about professions and sections of organisations (human resources as obsessive-compulsive, marketing as hedonists) so rock ’n’ roll bands have their stereotypes: the morose and depressive bassist; the mad-as-a-loon drummer; the narcissistic singer.

Many management metaphors are difficult to understand and sometimes are stretched beyond their application. And because they often relate to experiences not all of us have had (for example, military metaphors), they can be less relevant to our daily working lives. But few people in western, global, first-world organisations have not been exposed to popular music or the concept of the orchestra, and this is what makes the music metaphor so compelling and relevant to 21st century management.

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