Max Hardy Consultancy

Seven ways leaders can channel Bowie

A lot has been written about new forms of leadership.

There’s a mounting pile of evidence pointing towards the merit of an adaptive, collaborative approach to leadership.

But shifting into this kind of behaviour and approach invariably proves to be more than difficult. Many leaders I’ve worked with have gone so far as to say that they feel inauthentic doing leadership differently.

When Bowie left the planet, we didn’t just lose a great musician; we lost a great leader. Anyone aspiring to contemporary leadership should take inspiration and build upon his courageous capacity to shape, inspire and lead culture at a global level.

If you are up for the challenge here are seven ways to channel Bowie in your leadership.

1.    Choose to believe that you are capable of reinventing your approach and your style.
Bowie demonstrated an amazing ability to reinvent himself by creating roles. Bowie said he actually found it much easier to play other people, like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Thin White Duke. Sometimes Bowie seemed indistinguishable from the characters he created. Of course these characters reflected parts of himself.

Bowie found this to be liberating, and he shunned the somewhat nebulous challenge of finding and revealing his true self.

2.    Be open to viewing your identity as something that evolves, capable of being reimagined and as being multifaceted.

The idea we have an essential, unchanging identity is appealing to some extent. It means we can excuse ourselves from attempting to adapt. However, it also means we may not give ourselves permission to explore new ways of being. If we are feeling insecure we can also allow others to determine for us what is authentic or not. Playing it safe will likely be at the expense of being more flexible, and being more effective.

3.    Reflect on those times when different aspects of your personality surfaced – and as you do affirm to yourself you are not one-dimensional.

I recall being a young consultant, working hard to carve out my niche in the industry. I found myself so determined to please my clients that I ended up behaving like a contractor.

I was so keen to show how much expertise I had. I delivered some reasonably worthwhile services, but I didn’t attempt to transfer skills or build capacity within the organisations who’d engaged me. Even more concerning, external stakeholders and communities would comment on how much they appreciated me. But they still didn’t trust or respect the clients who had engaged me.

The penny dropped. I was getting in the way of respect building, or sustaining real change. It took some courage on my part to change the pattern. I had to challenge some of my own assumptions and fears. I had to find a new way of being a consultant, where my emphasis was much less about trying to be indispensable. The focus needed to shift toward helping others to be at their best, and to develop their skills and confidence.

Change doesn’t come easily. It does pay dividends.

4.    Explore new collaborations – Bowie could not have evolved without forging new close working relationships without other musicians and vocalists.

Bowie was an edgy collaborator. Viisti Dickens writing fro the Australian financial Review observed that ‘Bowie liked to harness the passion, skill and voices of those around him, which led to successes such as Let's Dance, Under Pressure, Walk on the Wild Side and Fame, to name but a few songs’. He refused to play it safe; he explored new genres with different people. It meant he could more fully express a new edginess to his music. His collaborations enhanced his creativity; it didn’t moderate or lessen it.

5.    Be willing to recognise and let go of, or at least temporarily suspend, assumptions about yourself, others and what works.

Having worked extensively in collaborative approaches to addressing complex issues for many years, I observe leaders playing roles that are constraining, and no longer terribly useful. I hear leaders expressing statements reflecting their assumptions, or their view of the world.

The community will never understand or appreciate the constraints we work within.’

“If I share responsibility things just won’t get done right!”

‘If I am truly open to collaboration, or co-designing a solution with others, I look weak, indecisive, stupid or possibly regarded as a shirker. Even worse, we end up with watered down solutions where no-one is completely happy.’

‘I have reached the position I now hold by being seen as having all the answers. It is important to continue to at least pretend to have the answers if people will still look to me as a leader.’

‘To minimize risk it is best not to tackle potentially controversial issues. If I wait long enough, chances are it will become someone else’s problem.’

Are any of these familiar?

6.    Try stepping into a new persona (remembering you are not becoming someone else; rather you are allowing other parts of yourself to emerge – become your own Thin White Duke, or Ziggy Stardust).

American writer Will Wilkinson writes about this.

“Rather than demanding authenticity, which is inherently paradoxical–trying to be real is embarrassing and fake. Bowie-ism instead asks for playful imagination in the artful construction and performance of persona…. The question is not who you are but what connects, how much courage you have, how much guile, what you can manage to get away with.”

7.    Resist the temptation to revert to your default settings when the going gets tough, when others disapprove or when challenged.

Remember, others like it when you are totally predictable; being different means others become a little off balance. Whoever is the least predictable has the most influence.

There are reasons why changing your approach to leading, planning and problem-solving are difficult. It is because such assumptions have served you reasonably well, most of the time, in the past. It takes enormous courage to let them go.

It’s up to you of course. It may seem much safer to keep doing what you’ve been doing. However, I believe it is much less safe in reality. Leadership through complex challenges will require more than new skills. It will require revisiting assumptions and daring to throw them away – at least for awhile. It may involve you giving permission to your other characters to emerge.

Behavioural flexibility, after all, is an attribute to being successful over time.

Bowie showed us the way.