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The Beatles’ Leadership and Innovation Lessons

I guess you have been watching all the news that’s fit to print about the Beatles and the British invasion?

Yup, I’m old enough to have listened to the Beatles when they were in their prime. I was, however, young enough not to realize how innovative their music was. And now it’s all getting revived again. Anyone remember Tommy Steele?

The Beatles played together for about 10 years (1960-70). So how did they go from nothing to being a super-team? Is there a secret here? I am sure there were hundreds, but I see two in particular that strike me.

One was their leadership. As you may recall, there were four Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. Most people don’t remember their manager, Brian Epstein. He first came into contact with the Beatles in 1961 and became their manager shortly after. He quit involuntarily when he died in 1967. Although the Beatles formally split up in 1970, it was all over after he died.

Brian Epstein put the Beatles on the map. He was critical in them becoming a worldwide hit. He was the glue that held them all together while they were at their zenith. I think we can say that without him, there would still have been a Beatles group, but it’s unlikely it would have been great.

The other factor is a little more delicate. Thee 4 Beatles were, to put it mildly, from the wrong side of the tracks. They were from Merseyside in Liverpool. For an American think Detroit, Harlem in the 1960s, or the Southside of Chicago now.

From an American perspective their social milieu was invisible to us. But if you were British, you knew it alright. Immediately any of the Beatles opened their mouth, you knew they weren’t from polite society. British accents tell it all, especially then. They were from a lousy area in a lousy town in a lousy industrial northern area of the British Isles. When Paul McCartney was knighted by the Queen in 1997, the Queen and her courtiers would have been able to congratulate themselves that they were demonstrating their commitment to the British lower classes.

The Beatles and their music originated in an environment of social and industrial decline and sharp social and educational inequality. Paul McCartney was the only one of the four to graduate what we call high school. Even Brian Epstein was Jewish. It doesn’t get much worse than that from a social perspective, a Jew from Merseyside.

So how do you get from there to here? What were the factors that drove this particular innovation in musical movement? Here’s counting:

  • The team was far from “headquarters” aka London. So the Southerners couldn’t stop them or their musical meme, the Beat.
  • They didn’t care what the upper classes felt. In fact, their music was a way of sticking it to the Man, in public.
  • Where they came from there was nothing else to do. Music for the dispossessed has always been like vodka to a Russian.
  • They had a leader with an abnormal personality, particularly for his time; depressive, brilliant, a homosexual (a major problem of course for the time), and druggie/alcoholic. One who attempted suicide several times and died of an overdose at 32. Think a mélange of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Alan Turing, Van Gogh. Brian Epstein was certainly not just your garden-variety business manager.

Remind you of anyone? How about the African-American urban fashionistas from Harlem and Chicago and the hip-hop movement? Another set of innovations from the wrong side of the tracks. Now the American invasion.

And how about innovation in business? I usually tell my clients that innovation often originates far from headquarters (in an empire it’s usually from the boonies like the crazies in Jerusalem who invented Christianity, far from the Romans).

Often, although certainly not always, innovation is from the wrong side of the tracks because the gentry never know what’s going on there till too late, like with Jesus Christ and his disciples. The innovators have nothing better to do either because they were in a social wasteland. Or they inhabit an industrial or business corporate wasteland, where new ideas are usually firmly smacked down. And finally there’s often an inspirational, deeply imperfect, even dystopic leader with massive personality defects (which might or might not be carefully combed over). Steve Jobs? Is there stuff we don’t really know about Jesus Christ?

In other words, the Beatles are not a bad allegory for innovation in all its many forms, geographies and environments.

In their own words “we all live in a yellow submarine”…

 

 

 

 

 

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Tuesday, 17 July 2018

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