1. What you are is as important as what you do, and more important than what you say. The ‘gender fluidity’ of Bowie’s early 70s persona forced many of his straight fans to confront and conquer their homophobia – or perhaps I should say starting the ball rolling on conquering it, as prejudices bound up with identity can be quite complex and deep-rooted – much as Hendrix forced his white fans to face up to and overcome their inherited racism five years earlier.
This comes back to Gandhi’s idea that ‘you must be the change you want to see in the world’. Leading by example is always going to be the most powerful form of leadership.
Bowie was inspirational to perhaps millions of other people in various ways and giving them the courage to rebel a bit, follow their path, try something a bit different.
2. Make your audience feel you are speaking directly to them, taking account of their state of mind – as an individual if they are alone or isolated, as a collective if they are in a like-minded crowd. Various commentators have singled out the moment that he pointed down the camera while singing the line “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” during ’Starman’ on Top Of The Pops in 1972 as the moment he became a star. Watching TOTP as a teenager always meant braving a certain amount of spoken or tacit disapproval from older family members, becoming more intense the more exotic or experimental the performer; just to insist on the TV staying on that channel felt like you were championing the new and progressive against social conservatism, so that pointing finger felt like a direct communication just for you.
3. Don’t stand still. More than anyone else, Bowie pioneered the idea of personal reinvention, never standing still, always evolving. He was like an anti-Status Quo or AC/DC in this respect – although in his insistence on always being yourself, knowing exactly who you are and staying true to it, he was like them.
This constant reinvention and not following the herd made him immune to changes of fashion in music. Most notably, when the punk revolution made other rock titans look like dinosaurs (all of the prog rockers, for example, or even the Rolling Stones, at the height of their powers only a few years before), he was striking out in a different and entirely original direction.
4. Bowie was pretty much the first rock or pop singer to bring the disciplines of mime and physical theatre to being a compelling frontman. He also applied creative techniques from other disciplines, for example using William Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ technique for writing lyrics, arguably with more successful results than Burroughs’ novels.
Many innovations come from putting two existing ideas together in a way that hasn’t been done before (or better than has been done previously). So what have you learned from your experience in other areas (sports, art, theatre, music, even gardening) that you could bring to enrich your leadership or innovation practice?
8. As a result, being inspirational to perhaps millions of other people in various ways and giving them the courage to rebel a bit, follow their path, try something a bit different. As an example, I heard an interview with one of New Order years ago (probably Bernard Sumner though it might have been Hooky) crediting ‘A New Career In a New Town’ with inspiring their whole sound.
9. Bowie was a master at using top class collaborators and putting them together in unexpected ways that really work – for example, the wildly differing guitar styles of Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan on ‘Let’s Dance’, or Eno’s unorthodox working methods with musicians.
Of course, it’s a commonplace in the music world to bring in session musicians to play parts that you can’t handle so well yourself. So what are you not an expert in that still needs to be done? What are you spending time on that bores you or takes you much too long, and how can you delegate these tasks to other people who like them or are better at them?
Also, who could you collaborate with to create something greater than either of you could come up with on your own?
10. Keep an eye out for talent, both new and existing. Bowie was also a brilliant talent spotter, launching the careers of people like Luther Vandross and (to an extent at least) Stevie Ray Vaughan, and resurrecting those of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed from the doldrums.
Who shows promise in your team that you can give a chance to? And more generally, if someone in your team has performed better in the past than they are now, what conditions enabled their better performance, and what can you do to restore them?
11. Always look forward. Bowie foresaw the impact the internet would have on the music industry about 15 years ago. He launched his own ISP (‘BowieNet’) to connect directly with fans, and was the first major artist to release a song as download-only.
His most famous business decision was to pioneer the idea of selling future income from his back catalogue (the ‘Bowie bonds’) and making a packet, not long before file sharing put income from royalties on music into a decline.
The lesson for us here is: If you see the future coming, act on it!
12. Bowie well understood the maxim that ‘all meaning is context dependent’, which is illustrated beautifully by this: everyone thought his last album ‘Blackstar’ meant one thing, then they found out he was dying and discovered it meant something else altogether. Someone in the press described it as ’the ultimate concept album’.
13. Following on from this (and perhaps not so easy to arrange as some of the preceding ideas), make your death count. He died as he lived, making his life a work of art.
14. Finally, Bowie did not spring fully-formed from the void. When he was starting out there were various support mechanisms available for artists and musicians so they could survive while they got their career going; the dole (where the government gives you enough money to live on, just about, if you are jobless), and free-to-attend art schools and higher education where you had a lot of free time to develop your ideas.
Those largely aren’t there any more in the UK. The cost of living is higher than it used to be, especially around housing, education isn’t free, the social security system intent on making you spend time on looking for unfulfilling work even if clearly none is available. (Having said that, I’m not sure how US musicians and artists got going, as there hasn’t ever been a comparable support system over there as far as I know).
If you’re interested in the relationship between environment and innovation, it’s worth looking up Brian Eno’s idea of ‘scenius’ – an environment that by a combination of various factors encourages and nurtures artistic talent and new ideas – and how this applied to London art schools in the 60s and 70s. I’m not sure how artists and musicians can get going now, unless they come from wealthy families. (I will expand on the idea of ‘scenius’ in a soon-to-be launched blog, working title ‘Useful Concepts’.
For more thoughts on leadership, get my recent e-book ‘Leadership EQ: How To Lead With Emotional Intelligence‘(if the Amazon store you use is not listed below, this link should get you there):