Classical Gas – Leadership Lessons from Nigel Kennedy

by Peter Cook

I went to see Nigel Kennedy

at a concert celebrating the work of composers that filled his early years, from Bach to Fats Domino.  Featuring a simple four piece of virtuoso musicians from Poland I had the great pleasure of meeting Nigel after the show where I presented him with a copy of “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll”.  Nigel was astonished that I’d noticed a cheeky and subtle reference to the blues harmonica embedded in one of his classical jazz pieces within the 90-minute performance (probably just a couple of seconds of playing) and invited me for drinks as a result. 

But the real question is, what can leaders learn from Nigel Kennedy?

Personal Leadership

Nigel is a thoroughly warm and authentic individual who refuses to be classified by others and who is comfortable mixing with royalty to those in the gutter staring at the stars.  At the age of 16, he faced threats from his classical tutors, when he was offered the chance to play with Stéphane Grappelli at New York’s Carnegie Hall, saying that it would be the end of his classical career.  He refused to heed the threats and crossed the invisible line between the classics and jazz. He has subsequently played material by Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, giving the establishment a run for their money.  These qualities are what business academic Rosabeth Moss-Kanter called a ‘boundary crosser’ and what Gareth Jones termed an ‘authentic chameleon’.  Kennedy shares this unwillingness to be classified with the music artist Prince, who has systematically crossed musical genres, although Prince has sometimes tested his audience’s patience to destruction.

Team Leadership

Kennedy works with a trio of musicians who he met in jazz jam sessions in his home town of Krakow.  Just watching the band work through his set was an exemplar of what I call “planned spontaneity”, which is itself a core competence for leaders who often face extremes of uncertainty in their businesses.  Too much planning stiffens the performance.  Too much spontaneity makes the performance sloppy.  Like most things in life, it’s a clever balance.  What other transferable lessons from Kennedy’s musical performance can we learn?

Simplicity – The drummer used one snare drum for much of the performance, using every part of the instrument and his hands to gain an enormous range of sounds from one drum.  This is the work of a true master.  The same principle applies in the world of innovation. A major factor that prevents new ideas from reaching the market is complexity.  In the words of Einstein “Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Interplay – Although it was obvious to me that the show had been extensively rehearsed, the true joy of the performance was when Nigel signalled the guitar player to extend his solos, during ‘interruptions’ of the performance by Nigel who was cajoling the drummer and bass player mid stream.  This is incredibly difficult to describe in print so you must catch him and the band on tour.  The point of the matter is that great team leaders inspire the team to greater levels of performance by a combination of pre-planned and some spontaneous challenges to keep performances fresh.  It’s a trait I’ve also observed at close range, when performing with Ozzy Osbourne’s former guitar player Bernie Tormé and “with two hit wonder and punk idol” John Otway.

Timing – Nigel’s band has exquisite timing, and this allows them to perform various musical acrobatics.  This is as the result of a combination of individual genius and what Tom Peters and others have dubbed the 10 000 hours effect.  Timing is an entirely transferable and largely overlooked part of a leader’s repertoire.  Smart leaders choose their moment to intervene on complex or difficult issues in the same way that an improvising musician makes choices over when to play and when to remain silent.

You can see some of this timing in this video clip:

Teamwork – Given the size of the egos and capabilities in Nigel’s ensemble, the miracle of teamwork is that all manage to leave their egos in the dressing room, playing off one another in a true example of what can happen of how healthy competition leads to peak performance.  It is rare to get teams of experts to collaborate in such a way in a musical setting and just as rare in business.  Just think of all the ‘supergroups’ that have imploded through the ages.  The smart leader is responsible for ensuring that diversity is truly valued and that all pay attention to all, all the time, so that they may take the performance higher.

Brand Leadership

Nigel Kennedy has extended his influence across many fields and the testimony to this could be seen by a casual look around the audience, who comprised well-heeled theatre-goers through to rock fans, perhaps of lesser means.  Very few artists could command such a demographic.

Whilst Nigel Kennedy has a clearly identifiable brand, he has refused to be sub-categorised by marketers who like to ‘thin-slice’ a brand in an ambition to provide seemingly greater ‘coherence’.  Kennedy is living proof that marketing plans are not the only way to have a great brand.

Five Lessons for Leaders

·       Be yourself completely, regardless of who you are with

·       Dare to be different.  Ensure that your ‘difference’ brings exceptional value if dealing with established viewpoints

·       Keep things simple when taking something new to the market

·       Ensure the team is both challenged and understands the value of play.  Leave egos at the door when collaborating

·       Avoid the trap of thin slicing your brand so that it loses broader appeal

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The Music of Business Peter Cook is a business academic, author, consultant and musician. He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisational Development and Business Coaching. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock. Peter is Rock ‘n’ Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.