​Beware the Lollipop of Mediocrity: Engagement Lessons from a Musical Genius

I’ve just finished watching a short documentary on the making of the Brian Wilson album ‘No Pier Pressure’. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will know my deep connection with his music from the time of the Beach Boys through until today. His eclectic style and ability to continuously learn and produce outstanding music is simply amazing. 

What stood out for me most though is listening to the much younger artists he brought in for this album talk about their experience in working with him on this album.

All of them, Kasey Musgraves, Nate Reuss, Sebu, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward – a new generation of performers, all established in their own right, describing what it means to be engaged in the creative relationship with Brian Wilson.  And all of them spoke about Brian’s desire for getting things right.  Really right.  Perfect even?  And at the same time they spoke about Brian learning as he understood their voices, and folded that into his style to allow for a co-creation and perhaps an output that was better than what he originally had in mind from a production perspective. One of them also spoke of how Brian draws in the best musicians because he can get them to lift more than they normally would.

Then it hit me.  What I was watching was a masterclass in engaging leadership.

He certainly has his ideas for how something should be, and the creative process is a high-risk environment.  The risk being that your creativity can be trashed at the whim of the consumer and critics. 

And leadership is no different. 

Really good leadership is often about having an idea about where you are going and articulating that.  At the same time it is about listening to your team and those around you, and being prepared to fold in their ideas to make the journey and outcome more effective than it was going to be.  But where’s the risk in that?  Well, anytime you are prepared to create a strategy, a plan for the future, a blue-print for a new product or service; you are putting your creative self out there for criticism.  Show me anyone who has done this and I’ll bet that they can list at least one person who criticised what they proposed. 

Beyond this, all of the younger musicians spoke about being inspired and lifted despite his drive for perfection.  In fact, I would say a big part of the inspiration was because of his famous drive for perfection…for wanting to get things just right.  How often do we hear the message that there is no such thing as perfection; and that’s true when it comes to ‘us’.  As humans, we are only perfect whilst ever we are growing, developing, learning and seeking to do things better than we may have done it before.  That is what I saw in that documentary; both from the actions of Brian Wilson and in the reflections of the younger artists. 

I am a believer that an important part of leadership is not being prepared to settle for second-best; firstly in myself, and therefore in others.  This also implies a wonderful thing.  It means we believe that even when we do and celebrate great work, we also believe that the team can still lift some more. It means that when things don’t work out so well, we believe that our team can learn, grow and give it another go.  That is a wonderful and inspiring belief to have as a leader.  Belief in self and belief in others.

The minute we stop believing this, I think we start to reduce our impact as leaders; we commence the gradual erosion of engagement.  So perhaps Brian Wilson brings something to the table when it comes to learning about engaging leadership? Perhaps a motto for being an engaging leader (and for life in general) can be found in the words of Brian Wilson…

“Beware the lollipop of mediocrity…lick it once and you’ll suck forever!”

Ponte Valle Insight: ​Beware the Lollipop of Mediocrity: Engagement Lessons from a Musical Genius

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