Back in my mid-20s, I moved to California to enroll in business school at The Leland Stanford Junior University. (Some of my East Coast buddies wondered out loud how I intended to earn an MBA from what sounded to them like a junior college, but we’ll save that for another day.)
When I arrived, I realised a couple old friends from my undergrad days at Oberlin College in Ohio were also in the Bay Area – Dick was finishing up his PhD in Physical Chemistry at UC Berkeley, while Steve, fresh out of Cornell Veterinary School, had begun a job as a horse doc in East Bay. Years before in college, we’d played in bands – Steve played a mean bass, Dick was a savant guitarist and arranger, and I played marginal sax and flute. And here we found ourselves, circumstance having drawn us within a few miles of one another on the other side of the country.
Someone suggested, “Let’s put the band back together.” (People really say that?) Together with a couple other musicians named Ron and Alan, we called ourselves Dogs on Welfare (not PC but you had to be there – Steve’s twisted-vet-clinic sense of humour). We did rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues covers as well as a handful of originals. Solid dance music. Fun party music. While we made decent pay at some of our gigs, there’s no question we all viewed the band primarily as a creative outlet and much-needed pressure relief from our respective ‘real lives.’
Looking back, it’s clear to me now that I learned more about leadership during those two years from my friend the guitarist and future chemistry professor than I did from my business school profs.
While Ron was our brassy, out-there lead singer and front man (and really wonderful in that role), it was Dick who quietly, facelessly made us a band. Dick organised the rehearsals. He wrote the arrangements. He put together the set lists. He subtly coached and encouraged each of us. And when we performed, he was our leader – although you’d almost have to have been a musician in the audience to have noticed, since his leadership style was so subtle. He made the rest of us look good, encouraged us to take risks, and always had our back. He made us feel great about our band and our individual contributions to our band.
If you’ve ever played in an ensemble setting, you may have experienced one of those special musicians with the intangible quality that makes every musician around him better. Dick brought that quality to us. He not only made us each better as a musician, and he made the whole so much greater than the sum of the parts.
And he made it all look easy – and never asked for credit.
As I subsequently headed into a business career and formed and led teams – and later formed and led companies – it dawned on me over time that the leadership style that worked best for me was to surround myself with strong people, not feel threatened by them, provide clear direction and structure, and focus my efforts on making my people successful as a unit and as individuals. If they’re successful, I’ll do just fine. Then generously distribute the credit, get out of the way and let the band play!
By the way, helping to crystallize these thoughts was a recent, wide-ranging conversation I had with my friend Ruth Blatt, who’s doing some fascinating work on the parallels between life in rock bands and business. Check her out at The Rock Band Project.
And to my old buddy and band leader Dick, this is a belated ‘Thank you’ for teaching me what it means to lead with vision, humanity and humility.
Jim Price is a serial entrepreneur and business educator. He’s launched and led several tech-enabled businesses, and achieved successful exits through multiple company sales and an IPO. For the past decade, Jim has also held a faculty position at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where he serves on the executive committee of the Zell-Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.
©2013 James D. Price.
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