Admittedly, the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards may seem an unlikely source of workplace inspiration.
But having just read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Richards’s autobiography, “Life,” I can assure you that there were dozens of lessons about life, business, creativity, and teamwork buried within his insanely wild life story.
After all, you don’t keep a band like the Rolling Stones together and on top for 50 some odd years (and some of the years were very, very odd) without learning a few things along the way. Here are 14 business lessons I gleaned from “Life:”
1. Excelling at anything and growing a successful enterprise takes a hell of a lot of work. And, yes, even the Rolling Stones started at the bottom. They lived some lean and mean years, working gig after gig for free just to gain the experience. Keith Richards stresses the importance of guitarists learning the basics – you don’t, according to Richards, jump right into playing electric guitar without first mastering acoustic guitar with gut strings. In other words, even with the Rolling Stones, there were no real shortcuts to achieving fame and fortune. It was hard work that started on the first ladder rung, plain and simple. Even once they achieved a bit of fame, they performed three years solid, often doing two gigs a day, and taking only 10 days off during those entire three years.
2. It’s an old cliche, and I’m not sure it’s always accurate, but in this case it definitely applies: Follow your passion and the rest will take care of itself. Keith Richards didn’t chase after fame and fortune–he just wanted to be able to do what he loved doing: play music and introduce Chicago rhythm and blues music to England.
3. It takes a lot of work to keep a team together and it doesn’t happen by accident. If you think you’ve got ego issues in your workplace, imagine holding together one of the world’s most famous bands. The Rolling Stones, and in particular the relationship between Jagger and Richards, was fraught with major ups and downs, including some very public spats. Yet, time and time again, they managed to pull the band together to be able to do what they love doing. But is wasn’t always easy, and it sure wasn’t always pretty.
4. Leadership isn’t static. Who leads, and the nature of that leadership changes depending on the project and on the circumstances. As Richards points out: “I don’t care who’s leading, it’s about whatever is best for the team.” A great philosophy for any team member to adopt.
5. When it comes to true teamwork, the old saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” definitely applies. Keith Richards cites example after example of how the Stones were at their best when they worked together and fed off each other’s energy. Neither Mick Jagger nor Keith Richards ever matched the success of the Rolling Stones when they tried to embark on solo careers, while some of their greatest hits were truly collaborative efforts that neither star could have pulled off working alone.
6. Focusing on ambitious goals can help people rise above the petty stuff. Time and again, members of the Rolling Stones would swallow their pride (albeit not easily sometimes) or give in on an issue in order to focus on the overall success of the band. For example, Richards recounts how Mick Jagger overlooked the inclusion of a saxophone player on a tour that he wasn’t personally very fond of (to put it mildly) because he knew that, despite his personal feelings, he was the best sax player they could have used to create the best possible music.
7. Einstein once said, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” The first song Richards and Jagger wrote together happened after their producer confined them to a house and ordered them not to come out until a song was done! A lot of creativity is really just about rolling up your sleeves and pushing through.
8. When inspiration doesn’t come to you, meet it half way. After Jagger and Richards hit a creative roadblock trying to write one last song for an album, they tore up a bunch of newspaper headlines and pages from books, threw them on the floor and looked for a little inspiration from the jumble of words on the floor. And it worked, resulting in the song, “Casino Boogie.”
9. Authenticity and instincts matter. Richards, at one point in their tumultuous relationship, accuses Mick Jagger of doing what a lot of entrepreneurs do: forgetting what brought them success in the first place and focusing too much on the competition, rather than trusting your instincts and focusing on what you do best.
10. Creativity is messy. It’s about playing with ideas and mucking around until you find something that works. The mega-hit “Start Me Up” is a classic example of a song that took years, and a lot of muckin’ about, for the Stones to get right.
11. “The show must go on!”. It’s an old show biz saw, but one that’s definitely accurate in the case of the Rolling Stones and any successful business. The Rolling Stones played through a monsoon in Bangalore, a heat wave in Milan, and freezing cold venues where Richards had to warm up his fingers with heat bags between sets. During one show with a big pyrotechnics kickoff, a lump of white phosphorous landed on Richards’s finger. He soldiered on through “Start Me Up” while watching his finger burn through to the bone. Chances are your business doesn’t deal in pyrotechnical displays, but it does deal with constant unforeseen circumstances and changes that will demand that your particular show go on regardless of unforeseen events.
12. No matter how many times you have to say or do something, from your customers’ perspective, it’s their first time! Richards describes how, no matter how often he’s playing the same song for a crowd, he feeds off the energy of the audience and understands that for the listeners, it’s their first experience in that moment.
13. Successful people seek out other successful people. Even in his later years, Richards loves playing with, and being challenged by, some of the greatest musicians of our time. Richards thrives in being tossed into situations where he is expected to be at his absolute best and pushed to the brink. Great leaders and great entrepreneurs surround themselves with people who push them to be at their best.
14. Teamwork is often about adjusting to each other people’s rhythms. When the Rolling Stones play, they are constantly adjusting their individual performances based on what everyone else is doing, in order to create the best possible result as a team.
And if great teamwork isn’t that, then I don’t know what is!
Michael Kerr, 2012, www.mikekerr.com
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