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Rock'n'roll leadership

From Futureorientation 4/2007


Leadership in the 21st century is about balancing people's need for security and ambiguity in their work. The organizations of the future will move away from the structured formalities toward a more improvisational structure, and management will no longer be a strategic meeting between company and employee. Instead, there will be an authentic and passionate relationship -- like that found in rock'n'roll.

By Gitte Larsen and Thomas Geuken

The strategic relationships that companies and organizations today build through HR and PR will be a thing of the past. Authentic relationships, on the other hand, lie in the meaningful encounter between people, and that is what employees will seek in the future. More and more focus is being put on dialogue and process, because it is through them that companies and employees can create better results. We have been raised to chase, account for and reward results, while the process is just the means. Therefore, many companies use many resources on HR and PR, because it is the quality of the resource here and the customer's attention now, which is important.

Over the past 20 years, companies have used two basic metaphors for the management and organization of the company's tasks: war and sport.

With the help of the war metaphor, our companies have talked about strategies, conquest of new markets and about how we can use various SWOT analyses (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to defend our position from attacks.

With the sport metaphor, companies have tried to solve management challenges by coaching, developing the team and talking about (peak) performance. Managers have swung the organizational pointer to make employees able to do what no one thought possible. These metaphors are out of date. They are simply too conventional and rigid to meet the demands made of, and in, the companies of the future.

Social organizations

How can we have dialogue and process on the bottom line? You can if you are a social organization. If the company's life is about some people working together to make something useful for people other than themselves. If the company has a concern or purpose. If you focus on being in good company and not, at first, on the result, many more bottom lines will come into play - and in the end, these will also contribute to the financial bottom line.

We seek all significance in what we do and want to do, and with those we are and want to be. We do not want to live other people's lives for long. Other people's stories, like those we meet many thousands of times a day in and from companies stories about themselves and their products. We all want to live our own lives, but we do not know how we can do it. We do not know where we will go. How we will figure it out. It happens that we must leave companies and organizations - either because we tend to burn for something, but now are burned out, or because we know all the rules of the game, and just don't want to use our lives on them any more. We live in a world that is all dressed up, but have nowhere to go.

In the near future, when the lack of qualified and talented labor becomes a serious threat for every company, more and more employees will begin to ask “What can this company do for me?” And if the company doesn't have a satisfactory answer, the employee will find one that has one. No one wants to work in companies that are only in it for the money.

A social organization is anchored in its place and in the people that make up the organization, the purpose of which will include many more elements than profit. Social organizations are a form of existence more than they are a traditional business. That does not mean that they don't make money, but it means that the desire to develop themselves and push the world forward is more important. The process becomes in many ways the goal. It is suddenly much more about how we are together - and about being good together.

From relations to relationships

Most companies, by far, have long ago taken the human perspective to heart, and the word “relations” is now one of the hottest buzzwords in business. Everyone wants to create and have better relations - lasting ones. Many still use the word “relations” as it was used in the industrial society. We think about relations in the same way we did when the mass market was invented. We used it as a technical term for a logical or natural association between two or more things that have a relevance from one to another. A relation is, in that sense, a linear coupling between A and B. That is exactly how many HR and PR practitioners approach their job. The relation between the company and the employee or customer often becomes a one-way communication in which the central actor believes he can influence the masses in the desired way through marketing on the mass market and through corporate branding. The company believes it calculate its way through to the solution.

Many companies and organizations say people are their most important resource (corporations), but people actually are the company (co-operations). There is a big difference in the types of relations in corporations and co-operations. The first still lies within the war and sports metaphors, while the other belongs to the rock band; and in the first, one exercises arelation, and in the other, one creates a relationship.

A relationship is an association between people who are tied to each other. Relationships build on a joint desire for, and an openness for, a reciprocal effect on each other. Relationships have a circular dynamic that means we are tied to one another. We are in good company. We also risk something by being together because we commit ourselves to each other, and we have a joint purpose. The seriousness also sets in motion a personal responsibility in the individual that at the same time rises above the person. By thinking that way, we insist on the meaningful in our interpersonal relations.

The strategic meeting with others - (future) employees, customers and others - does not create the relationship many employees want. Because we strive for results - and because we “dress up” to achieve the good result, so we look better than the competitor does - we lose the chance to meet and affect each other. The strategic meeting or the strategic relation is characterized by both parties having a clear agenda. What happens is that we prioritize the strategy over the meeting with another person. The result, as exactly described in the strategy, becomes more important than the process of meeting someone else. In short, the strategic meeting hinders the personal meeting. In short, business gets in the way of the meeting between people.

From sport and war to rock'n'roll

It's time to drop sports and war as our metaphors for the way we organize our companies, and replace them with something new. Companies are already familiar with different metaphors from the world of music, such as orchestra and jazz. The orchestra has a lot in common with both sports and war - the idea of a leader as conductor. The orchestra metaphor, in other words, is close to the conventional perception of power, structure and control. Jazz on the other hand is all too genial and has a tendency to chase its own tail because it is self-referential and never looks without.

Companies desperately need a new metaphor that includes great complexity and the chaos situations that arise in knowledge work. They need the rock band and rock'n'roll leadership.

Leadership in the business environment of the future is not about directing an orchestra, where the musicians have the same sheet music and know which instrument to play, and where the audience takes what it gets. In the 21st century, leaders must move from being composers and conductors to being improvisers. That's why the rock band is a good choice for a new metaphor - it includes that shift and offers radical new thinking in the company. The orchestra as leadership metaphor gave managers security and a feeling of control. It gave employees a certain security around their own roles. And it gave shareholders a sense of direction and a faith in the business strategy. The orchestra analogy was essentially about conformity, in the sense that everything should be executed correctly, and everyone worked from a common set of instructions. In short, you did what you were told.

Instead, leadership in the 21st century is about choosing a form that balances people's need for both security and ambiguity in their work. This requires a shift from structured formalities, as found in a symphony orchestra, to a more improvised structures such as in rock. The rock'n'roll analogy is essentially about breaking out of the tyranny of sheet music and doing your own thing in the context of a basic structure. Unlike the orchestra, the individual is just as important as the group. The rock'n'roll analogy is looser than the orchestra's and offers the maximum resonance with people. Just think how employees in your company have grown up with MTV.

Rock'n'roll is a way of life

Rock'n'roll springs from a hybrid of African rhythms and European tones. The energy and spark happens in a crossfire between the different traditions and codes. Rock springs from slavery, and so has a mission. It has relations to the lost continent, Africa, and the social injustice (the ethical matter) means that rock'n'roll wants to change the world: pushing the world forward.Without repeating the history of rock, it has a naïve belief that good lyrics or a good melody can change the world. John Lennon's song, Imagine all the people, effectively stopped the Vietnam War. Good rock music reflects its historic and social period, and offers insight into the human dynamic. That means that leadership can happen without an MBA. If you already have a business education, is it perhaps like penicillin for you, and helps ensure you don't practice leadership as pure technique?

Rock'n'roll is the little man's music that describes the spirit of the age and works against the establishment. It is rebellious without the activism of punk. Rock'n'roll is not recognized as art because it is simply too popular and accessible. It is not elitist enough to be used as a positional power; in other words, it requires no special knowledge to be understood. Rock's credo is “what you hear is what you get.”

What is interesting about a rock band as an organization is that the band puts internal relations and cooperation at the front. For the band to work, it must integrate the personal presence with the joint project. In its organization, it is both value-driven through a musical interest and through the organization of stars in an network

The star network consists of a small, closed core in the form of the band, and the classic band organizational structure is the Fab Four: a four-man band consisting of singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer — just like the Beatles. The band has strong times to a soundman, a manager and a booker. The band, in addition, has looser ties to groupies, who are allowed, for a moment, into the group's core. They build global and regional communities (infrastructures) in the form of fansites, which ensure the band's music (product) gets out to the masses. What holds the star network structure together is the dedication to the band. It is the music, rock'n'roll as a lifestyle.Rock is not a fashion but a lifestyle. The band is the center, and everyone knows Together we stand, divided we fall.

The band's magic lies in its gallery of members, and that is what the public wants to see. They want the real stuff. That's why it is a catastrophe when a band member leaves the group. Fans vanish because the band no longer exists in its original form. The persons are the band. Just like the people in a social organization.

Rock is a provocation

The band also has a clear concept for its show and a life offstage. It is used to moving professionally in different social fields and contexts. The band's members are fully aware of when they, for example, practice in a rehearsal hall, record especially difficult passages in the studio, and when they perform their music and show on the stage.

Success is about being able to convert the inherent need to create, and creativity, to a set of songs that are magic - and that form of innovation requires both structure and looseness. Rock musicians, who improvise, operate within a set of both unspoken and unconscious rules. On the one hand, the band must ensure an appropriate psychological security, but on the other hand, it must ensure the musician can release his creativity, commitment and the feeling of “can do.” If you can't create a community with your band mates, the band dissolves. One of the particular innovation tools rock musicians use is the so-called “tonal dissonance,” which is the place in the music where the harmonies dissolve and are replaced by a cutting mix of tones that scream at each at each other in discord. Exactly in that field of chaos and dissonance arises the chance for artistic creation that can outline the path to a new melody (innovation product).

A band's cohesive power lies in the community around the genre or a “vibe” and in the friendship or the “relationship” between the members. Rock music is the fruit of these two elements. The raw materials are motivation, energy, passion and aggression in a safe and curbed form. Rock is fundamentally a provocation - a sort of anti-company - and is therefore the real power in a rock band is often invisible. The apparent power hierarchy in a band is, as a rule, 1) the singer, at the top, 2) the flamboyant guitarist, 3) the bassist, sort of there for the ride, and 4) the drummer, at the bottom of the hierarchy and somewhat hidden away. But the real power can be completely different, as it is in the heavy metal band Metallica, in which drummer Lars Ulrich is maybe the person with the most power. But power is not that important - it is the whole roster that matters both on and off-stage.

Rock music is an ideal

Rock also has a social function as an outlet for all that we normally may not do. Going to a concert is everyone's chance to put on a headband and scream ”fuck” along with everyone else. We are a part of the musical experience - not against it. Rock music also proclaims another ideal. An ideal that is about delivering the goods to the public. The rock band is outgoing, with the motto ”the louder the better.”

Rock preaches the ideal that your dreams must be lived, the wilder the better. Rock'n'roll is about living your passion and pursuing the real, honest and authentic moment. That's in contrast to the ideal that dominates companies today, which can best be described as disciplining the soul. Living the brand! The company's values must be implemented in the employee, instead of letting the employee's values be the company.

Many companies and organizations today actually have a remote and cynical way of acting - toward employees and all other stakeholders. This is because the company thinks in terms of the strategic meeting and the strategic relationship. But our working life is no longer just a job. We collapse from stress because we give of ourselves and use ourselves as people in our gobs, and don't get the acknowledgement all people need. We are recognized in the corporate structure by being promoted, because we have delivered the goods to the financial bottom line, but recognition is not acknowledgement. Acknowledgement comes from knowing the person, and the person does not appear in the company history. But the person is the company in the creative knowledge economy.

Many of today's organizations, in that way, also tie down desire, creativity and passion. In other words, rock music, as an ideal, is a rebellion against the traditional corporate ideal.

Rock'n'roll leadership

The band functions when every member smiles in the rehearsal room. When the guitarist doesn't leave the band. When everyone is emotionally involved. When the members grow together instead of from each other. When there is constant progression in the form of new goals and destinations. When the band is open for solo projects in the band, and not outside the band. When relations between the members are borne by confidence.

Transferred to companies and organizations, this means that rock'n'roll leaders should see the power in every employee, and let the employee contribute with his or her burning heart. Talent is not something the individual possesses, but something that happens at the intersection of human drive and an organizational possibility. If possibility doesn't enter the picture, talent withers.

The rock'n'roll leader must also be able to improvise, even though the overall strategy, problems or results are unclear, instead of having nothing to do or choosing to give up. The manager must have a face both internally and externally to be able to live up to the demands made of him. He must be conscious of the company's mission both externally and internally. So it is also necessary that he can also tune into the world around himself and gather feedback from different sources - and have the courage to change course along the way

Last and not least, the rock'n'roll leader will create more productive fun in the workplace through aha inspiration, ha ha fun and cha cha movements. It's all about being in good company.

Sources: These thoughts are inspired by the book All Dressed Up - but nowhere to go go and P. Cook, Leadership lessons from the academy of rock.

Many thanks to Claus Langeskov, professor of music, for inspiring discussions about life in a professional rock band - on and off the stage.

Thomas Geuken is a state-certified industrial psychologist and is an associate of Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, tg@cifs.d. Gitte Larsen is a futurist and is the editor of FO/futureorientation, gil@cifs.dk Thomas and Gitte are co-authors of All Dressed Up - but nowhere to go, published (in Danish) in August 2007 by Gyldendal. You can order the book at alldressedup@cifs.dk for DKK 269,- or at your local bookstore.

The Rock 'n'roll Company:

    • is populist, accessible and democratic.
    • is rebellious.
    • wants to change the world.
    • puts cooperation and relations in front.
    • is values-driven and is a star network.
    • has both a clear concept for the show and a life off stage.
    • is the full integration of the personal and the join project.
    • releases the inherent desire to create and lets creativity flow.
    • arose through coincidence -- maybe friendship?

The symphony orchestra vs. the rock band as a metaphor for leadership

In the orchestra:

      • The conductor precisely executes his role within the context of the structure.
      • The conductor prioritizes the orchestra because it is more important than the individual musician (though there can be some star soloists)
      • Group result is critical.
      • Management is centralized and the top manager is the conductor in a hierarchical structure of team leaders who lead specific sections, such as brass or woodwinds.

In the rock band:

      • Do your own thing within the structural context.
      • The individual musician is just as important as the band (though there can be some star soloists)
      • The individual's product and the group's product are critical
      • Management is distributed and shifts from time to time.

Top 15 Rock'n'roll tips for companies and LEADERS

    • Good vibrations: How do you get customers to experience what you do in their heads and their hearts?
    • If paradise is half as nice: When you introduce people to the things you do, how can you signal that the first experience is just the warm-up act, and that there is a lot more to come?
    • Knowing me, knowing you: If you want to offer something really good, you must find out your customers desires, fantasies, phantasms, taboos etc, and make sure you can offer something others cannot or dare not touch.
    • Nothing compares to U: Always make your offering unique and hard to imitate.
    • It ain't what you do, it's how you do it: If there are no product differentiators, it all comes down to service delivery and responsiveness.
    • Suspicious minds: Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to destructive and political/tactical games in your company.
    • U got the look: Style beats substance any day. When you have control of the substance, always choose your style.
    • The great pretender: Leadership requires that you master different styles. You must be able to be dictator, salesperson, facilitator, comedian, improviser and guide. Know your own breadth, your own borders and your limitations.
    • Puppet on a string: Stop challenging employees to be part of your cult of personality. They will never tell you want you are doing wrong -- especially when it's really going wrong.
    • Video killed the radio star: It's not the competitor you know today that will kill you. It's the companies that unexpectedly enter the market who will make your product obsolete overnight.
    • I can't control myself: Creativity without discipline rarely leads to innovation.
    • All shook up. Learn to ride a wave of chaos instead of running away from the unknown, unstable and unexpected.
    • How can I be sure: Good decisions balance analysis, intuition and attitude.
    • We gotta go out of this place: If your market disappears, or your strategy doesn't work, hit the OFF button and find something else to do.
    • Come together: When something good happens in the workplace, make sure everyone experiences the happy stimulant.

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18. september 2007

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