My Simplicity interview today is another US based friend John O'Leary. I first came across John when commenting on Tom Peters Blog and we have struck up a friendship through email and Blogging that continues to develop. John and I share some similar music tastes and we share many similar ideas about how organisations should value people working at the front line. John is based in the US.
TREVOR: Hi John – I know you have had a fascinating and interesting career. I would love to hear a quick summary of some of the stuff you have done.
JOHN: Thanks for the opportunity, Trevor! Well, I always feel my career is just beginning, but I guess that’s because of all the twists and turns and course corrections I’ve made. In 1968, after several years of college—and 6 years of studying Ancient Greek—I abruptly left academia (and a promising future teaching dead languages) to play rock & roll full-time. My campus rock band in New Haven had been picking up some prestige bookings in Greenwich Village, New York—opening for acts like the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Sly & the Family Stone, and Joni Mitchell—and we were invited to play the Berkeley Folk Festival that summer. So the band and I didn’t need much convincing to take the leap. We never got the recording contract we wanted but we had a great ride for the next year as did my subsequent “almost famous” bands. It was a real kick to be a part of the NY and LA rock scene in the late 60s and 70s, hanging or jamming with the greats—Blood Sweat & Tears, the Byrds, Tina Turner, Jackson Browne. 15 years later I changed course again and landed in the training & development world. I lucked out again and got to study or work with luminaries such as Werner Erhard, Peter Senge, and Fernando Flores. 15 years later I started consulting under the Tom Peters umbrella. Oh, and in the early 1980s I took some time off to run for US President as an independent—though that was mostly for the fun of it and to write a book about, which is mercifully out of print. A lot of folks who saw me on TV in 1980 still haven’t made the connection to me now, which allows me to keep working.
TREVOR: I was born in 1952 and so I was brought up in England as a teenager in the 1960’s on The Beatles and the music revolution. We rightly remember with great nostalgia the 1960’s. Was it really such an influential decade or do we just have rose tinted spectacles when looking back?
JOHN: Every decade is influential in different ways of course. What interests me is the contribution the 60s made to popular culture, especially in the area of pop music. If rock & roll was born in the 50s, it got a license to drive in the mid-60s. Rock wasn’t taken seriously at first—despite the genius of songwriters like Chuck Berry. But after the Beatles & Dylan showed up, the universe changed. Someday I may write about the summer of 1965, the tipping point. Everybody was trying to outdo everybody else then—the Stones, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Kinks. All at once you were hearing songs like “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Help,” “Mr Tambourine Man,” “Help Me Rhonda.” Not to mention some great Motown hits.
TREVOR: You do work for Tom Peters who is one of my management icons. Tell us something about working as part of the Tom Peters Company.
JOHN: Actually in the States we’re all independent contractors—in the spirit of “Free Agent Nation” (Daniel Pink’s book and Tom’s credo)—who come together to work on specific projects for clients who want to implement Tom’s ideas. We all share Tom’s iconoclasm and have a lot of fun contributing to the tompeters.com blog, which is a terrific worldwide forum.
TREVOR: What do you see as the greatest challenges for leaders in the future John?.
JOHN: In business, government, education, healthcare, even religion I see leaders trying to make sense of a world turned upside down. Leaders trying to get their organizations to work with user manuals that are obsolete. What’s desperately needed is some independent thinking, and some courage to improvise. This is not a good time to rely on traditional management wisdom, economics orthodoxy, or political dogma. Clinging to ideology can destroy everything. The wise men in robes don’t have the answer. That, in part, is what my book is about.
TREVOR: Tell us about the book.
JOHN: Well, it’s turning into my life work, given how long I’ve been hacking away at it. My focus is on business lessons we can learn from rock & roll bands. The book identifies 6 ways in which the great rock & roll bands are exceptional business teams: (1) they’re radical innovators and risk-takers; (2) they’re passionate and inspired about their work—and they have fun; (3) they manage differences and capitalize on conflict; (4) they create a distinct identity and brand; (5) they’re ambitious, focused, and result-driven, despite stereotypes to the contrary; and (6) they’re highly autonomous and independent-minded. Then I show how to instill—or liberate—these abilities in our organizational teams. And I argue that without an infusion of these qualities many of our beleaguered organizations and institutions, ill equipped to compete in this crazy economy, are headed for obsolescence or irrelevance. To keep it interesting I illustrate my points with lots of stories and anecdotes from boardrooms, bars, and recording studios. It will be a business book you can dance to. Hopefully I’ll finish it this year. I’m a slow writer, but maybe it will appeal to all the slow readers out there.
TREVOR: Have you any plans to come back to England?
JOHN: I’d like to go tonight, but I’m knee-deep in other projects. And to stay healthy I’m trying to trim back on air travel for awhile. I don’t think living on planes is particularly good for any of us. But London is one of my favorite cities. The last time I was there in 2002 I played guitar at an entrance to the Tube just for the fun of it, and I happened to leave my guitar case open. A homeless woman came along and threw in a few pence. Something told me I should just accept it with gratitude, so I did. For one hour I was part of that street community and they took care of me. I'll always remember that snapshot of London. After that I made my pilgrimage to Liverpool to pay tribute to the Beatle gods.
TREVOR: And finally John you know I can’t possibly interview you without asking what you honestly think about The Eagles – Just how iconic are they and how will they be remembered when they finally hang up the instruments?
JOHN: I believe the Eagles, who came out of the same LA folk-rock crowd I used to get in trouble with in the early 1970s, will be forever honored for their alchemy of rock & country. The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers got that started but the Eagles took it to a new level, with a little Don Henley soul mixed in. And from the beginning they were a triple-threat band, which is a hallmark of the top bands. They could sing, play, and write. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were among the best songwriters that came of age in the 70s. When I first heard “Best of My Love” on the radio in 1974 I had to pull over to the side of the road, it hit me so hard. And of course “Hotel California” belongs on a short list of perfect rock songs. It should be launched in a time capsule documenting the whole era. The Eagles are also a wonderful illustration of a business team that learned how to harness their conflict—interpersonal and creative—to put out strong product for a fanatic customer base. And they’re back at it!