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Leadership Lessons from Metal Gods
Operational Management from Unexpected Sources
Stabbed for having long hair
Imagine being 21 years old and your first effort out of the box is the best the world has ever seen. And experiencing international celebrity and fame within a six-month timeframe.
And without knowing it, creating a genre. And having every whim and wish granted. And living a rock star’s life for four months. Wait. What? Four months?
Then being told by your bosses to get back to work. Not to recreate what had just resulted in heretofore unrivaled success. But to exceed it. And there is a two month deadline.
What was their motivating force?
You didn’t whine about lifestyle options if you were a teenager in Aston in the 1960s: you were too busy concentrating on not being stabbed for having long hair.
(Image credit: Press)
Three Answers You Will Takeaway
What can we learn from a 1970’s quartet of long-haired twenty-somethings about organizational leadership and operational management in 2022?
What concrete actions are inspired by the interactions that created a Platinum-selling Heavy Metal album?
How did they handle the pressure, produce the product, and exceed hyper-inflated expectations on time?
Cigarettes, alcohol and heroin
Music is the second element of life in my belief universe and is as essential to the human soul as food is to the human body.
I write about Black Sabbath as being one of my four pillars of rock here. The other three being, in no particular order, DEVO, Rush, and Zeppelin. I mentioned seeing the Sabbath bloody Sabbath album cover when my friend Richard was buying the record. It changed my life.
I listened to this CD every single day for well over a year and a half. Sabbath’s quantity and quality of musical ability and style virtuosity would surprise you. Example in point: the instrumental Fluff. If you have never listened to a Sabbath song, shame on you. Fix it now.
Metal Hammer on Louder Rock Magazine is an awesome go-to source for background told by artists. Hearing stories in authentic voices and genuine words motivates me. They always put the lie to the myth of overnight stardom. Only hard work pays off.
I started reading this one and got to thinking about how professional these guys were. I read and watch a lot of bios/docs on artists, and these dudes approached rock success differently.
Cigarettes, alcohol and heroin: the inside story of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid by Joel McIver is well-written and really dives in on the nuances and subtleties of these articulate, thoughtful, and politically astute personalities.
Full Disclosure: The last instrument I actually played was the snare drum in 5th grade. Apart from the tuba, the snare drum is the heaviest and bulkiest possible instrument. I wasn’t exactly a big strapping youth, so lugging that around probably planted a psychological obstacle to musical success. Another lament for another time...
I am drawn, as are most listeners of music, to the many facets of the musical experience. As a writer, lyrics are very important to me. I cannot carry a tune in a bucket (see above) so the melodies, harmonies, bridges and shifts are things I notice when pointed out.
I know when a song works for me, or a string of songs on an album side. It is holistic. Listening to a musical work of art as laid down by the artist while reading the liner notes and lyrics is a sensual, tactile, spiritual experience. Headphones are mandatory for that trip.
When the artist engages the patron on equal footing, it is a felt connection. It creates a memory of a thing. A place of reference in both lives. A space that one can come back to, that brings familiarity, if not comfort. Call it Common Ground.
The Heavy Metal album in question is Paranoid. And it is a masterful piece of work. Whether one loves metal or hates it, one must admire the unrivaled pinnacle of the genre. This may be it.
Coming on the heels of their break-through debut album, they felt they had some time to soak up the trappings of success. Nope.
ANSWER #1 - Work Your Ass Off - Then Work It Off Again
There is no time to soak up the trappings of success. As the piece points out, and as they all crack, today’s bands are “pussies”. Bands release an album about every 2-3 years today, with maybe a live album in between. (done work, not hard)
In a long and nicely crafted piece of literary work in and of itself, Kory Grow, Sr Writer at RS throws down a roadmap of the early Sabbath days in Heavy Metal, Year One: The Inside Story of Black Sabbath’s Groundbreaking Debut
So how was this lesson relevant to the making of an album? A soon-to-be iconic album in the notoriously ruthless world of rock n’ roll excess, no less? Drummer Bill Ward explains
“We worked hard,” says Bill. “We would get up early and be playing by 9.30am. We had a rehearsal room in Birmingham until lunchtime and then we’d go back to Tony’s house and drink tea, eat toast and scrounge cigarettes off his mum. Then we’d be playing a gig – almost every night.”
Although the Black Sabbath album had made an impact, the band members still experienced shudders of fear when they thought about returning to the horrendous jobs they’d had in the late 60s.
“I drove a lorry in a cement works,” remembers Bill. “It was really hard graft: I had to lift hundredweight [about eight stone] bags of cement. I used to have one under each arm and another on my back.”
All this meant that Sabbath were determined to make their second album a definitive statement. They looked around for a different way to make the LP, as life in Birmingham wasn’t conducive to high-quality songwriting.
Sabbath had just skyrocketed to international super-stardom within six months. By happenstance or circumstance, a new genre of rock music had appeared. They were heavy. Really dark, dismal and heavy. They were Rock Stars.
Playing rock n roll is easier than lifting cement bags. Applying the same effort makes the difference. They grew up pissed off, and it shows in their Music.
They worked as hard as common laborers at their craft. Which allowed them to excel as masters of their craft.
Insomnia attacks my adventures in dreamland early every Sunday morning. Like 3 or 4 am early. I combat it with documentaries. In a brilliant counter-attack, the doc interests me. I fall down another rabbit hole instead of falling asleep. If not for that, we wouldn’t be here. Lucky you!
Amazon Prime Video Classic Albums Documentary is a dependable spot to satisfy sleepless curiosity. I found this one and let’s just say, Heavy Metal is heavier and metalier at 4:30 am!
ANSWER #2 - Be Vulnerable, Confident, and Spontaneous
Please check out this Louder piece, and while you are there, search Paranoid to see a gang of great takes on this one album, 50 years later. Yeah, it's iconic.
So, vulnerability and confidence are two sides of the same coin. Confidence is the opposite of esteem. I taught my children, and preach the value of, Self-Confidence. I thought of linking to some definitions of these terms, but then I thought…
Nah, that’s a bit of homework I might ask you to comment on. What is the difference between the two - Self-Esteem | Self-Confidence.
Sabbath exhibited and expressed vulnerability, even if I didn’t know what feeling I was hearing. I certainly wasn’t getting this kind of feeling at home.
“Success gave us confidence in our writing. It meant we could go ahead and write all original material for Paranoid. The critics were brutal on our first album, so when it was successful it showed they were way out of touch with what was happening. With Paranoid, we only had ourselves to please. If we liked the songs, that was all we needed.”
As Iommi told music paper Disc & Music Echo: “We write about what’s happening in the world. We prick consciences.”
“It’s the name that led them into that style,” Simpson says. “A name like that is a statement of intent.”
“What I love about the band is that we allowed our vulnerability to stick out,” Ward says. “When I think about the lyrics to ‘The Wizard,’ some people could probably feel that they’re laughable. But they actually meant something for us, and we were bold or brave enough to show ourselves from the inside out.”
Vulnerability is often confused with weakness, which is a real travesty. I wish I would have learned this lesson much earlier in my life. These guys had that elusive mix at such an early age.
Vulnerability and confidence revolve around the axis of self-awareness. The most gifted and talented people on earth often have zero self-awareness. This makes them difficult to be around. Think Sheldon Cooper.
I wrote a deep-dive on this topic here. Vulnerability removes the rigid boxes and silos we’ve built around ourselves to insulate us from the bad things that, despite our intentions, still keep happening to us.
Vulnerability recognizes our own humanity, and the humanity of all of those around us.
Vulnerability is the ability to display authenticity. Confidence is the capability to utilize that power. Spontaneity is the spark that lights the fire of action.
ANSWER #3 - Take Risks, Recognize Failure, Act Urgently
Sometimes, or sometimes a lot, you blow it. If you do not know the exact moment when you screw up, you are not self-aware, and this piece is too advanced for you. Go back to pre-school and learn self-control and discipline.
I am not talking about admitting shit or confessing your sins, but on a life level, when a self-induced error results in insult and injury, you gotta own it.
The best time to own a problem is immediately. Like as soon as you feel the red blush creep all over your head. That's the red flag in my experience. I used to blow it off. Read the prison diaries for how that turned out.
Guitarist Tony Iommi left to join Jethro Tull. (that explains Jethro Tull’s metal grammy in 1989 - also explains why the grammys are irrelevant)
The Recording Academy recognized heavy metal music artists for the first time at the 31st Annual Grammy Awards (1989). The category was originally presented as Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental, combining two of the most popular music genres of the 1980s. Jethro Tull won that award for the album Crest of a Knave, beating Metallica, which were expected to win with the album ...And Justice for All. This choice led to widespread criticism of The Recording Academy, as journalists suggested that the music of Jethro Tull did not belong in the hard rock or heavy metal genres. In response, The Recording Academy created the categories Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Metal Performance, separating the genres.
Tony Iommi said he decided to reunite Black Sabbath instead of staying with Jethro Tull in 1968 because he wanted to build a team rather than be part of an established group.
Sabbath were known as Earth until their split, after which Iommi joined Ian Anderson’s band for a brief period. In a new episode of Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, he explained why he soon wanted to reunite with Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, despite their recent disbandment.
“I felt really weird not being with the other guys - I really missed them,” he said. “I felt a bit out of place. … I was joining basically an established band. ... I wanted to be able to earn my own dues, if you like. I didn't want to join a band that was already doing well and I was just going to be the guitar player.
“I didn't want to be the guitar player in Jethro Tull and like a side musician; I wanted to be a part of a team. So I said to Geezer, ‘Let’s get the band back together,’ which is what we did. We called Ozzy and Bill from London, and we said, ‘We’re coming back. If everybody’s really serious about this, I’m willing to leave and we'll get back together again and really work at it.’ … So that's what we did.”
It wasn’t the first time Sabbath split, as Iommi recalled elsewhere in the interview.
When they first got together, they found themselves unsure of their direction and realized there were too many members in the lineup. “It was a bit of an odd combination at first, because nobody knew what everybody else could do,” the guitarist said. “It didn't seem to be going anywhere at first. It became a six-piece band, where we had a sax player and another guitar player, [a] slide guitar player.”
Before success comes doubt. If you don’t have butterflies in your stomach, whatever you’re doing is not that important to you. Puking before a big moment is pretty standard in most of the professions I’ve toiled in. Nerves mean you care.
Taking a risk without recognizing the chance of failure is pretty stupid. I know from experience. Worrying about failure without assessing the risk is silly. Been there too.
A former boss said of me, “You’re mistakes are because you go too fast. Slow down.” I always took that to mean literally, physically, slow down. I realize now that it doesn't mean that at all.
Scan the situation, outline the outcome, identify the pitfalls, have plan B and C ready to roll, implement urgently but nimbly, and know what success looks like.
Black Sabbath essentially started as a protest band. They were protesting a lot of shit - their crappy jobs and town they lived in, asshole skinheads, the Vietnam War, drugs, corporate war industry, the record company, the critics.
Guess who loved that protest music? Pretty much everybody. They had a vision of success. It was their vision. They shared equally in the work. They trusted themselves and each other.
We can learn much from those long-haired twenty-somethings. The least of which is belief. Belief in oneself. In one’s vision. In one’s team.
I believe in you. Thanks for believing in me.