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In the time I’ve been banging around in modern business I have long been amused by the corporate world’s use of self-aggrandizing analogies. Like, in the web 1.0 era every big company that built a corporate website would take about the upper management folks who led those efforts as “revolutionaries” taking on the “status quo”.

Quick tip: if the status quo is what’s paying you, you are absolutely not going to blow it up.

This was the same era in which I heard a change in language from the accurate but un-sexy “Management” to the self-congratulatory and self-inflating “Leadership”.

Leadership is rare. It doesn’t come from a book and I don’t really believe it can be taught.

Quick Leadership Self-Assessment: look behind you. Is anyone following you? This isn’t the same as asking if anyone is below you on an org chart. Those people aren’t following you… they’re trying to optimize the outcome of an annual review.

Back in 1993 when I was trying to be a rock’n’roll star (by virtue of the fact that you’re reading this you can draw totally accurate conclusions as to how well that pursuit went), I had the opportunity, through a weird series of events, to staff the team that provided the ambient entertainment at a wedding. For an actual Rockstar.

The time was 1993. The Rockstar was (and is) a guy named Matt Sorum, at the time the drummer for Guns’n’Roses. This is when Guns’n’Roses was GUNS-AND-F**KING-ROSES… the biggest band in the world.

Matt turned out to be a very nice man. But also he was a natural leader who brought clarity, humanity, generosity, and (when he needed it…but only when he needed it) edge to the table as his primary tools.

Humanity – Matt took time out from his own preparations to meet with us. He made small talk with the students. He remembered, throughout the day, everyone’s name and while he’s one of the stars of this movie and we’re like the equivalent of craft services, would tell people how great they were doing, thank them for doing what they were doing.

Trust me, he had other things to do. That seemingly small effort pays long term dividends.

Clarity – in that initial conversation, in a really relaxed way, he gave everyone the context of the day, what they were there to do, a few minor and not terribly restrictive rules.  

He was very candid about how the people in attendance were the big people in the couple’s lives and more than anything he wanted them to walk out of there glad they came.  

The team heard directly from the man himself, not from an intermediary (me) what he needed from them.

As with his humanity, that clarity pays dividends, though they’re immediate. The team got completely focused on doing everything they could to serve the needs of the event and felt empowered to make choices to that end.

It worked. They did.

Generosity – along with repeatedly thanking folks throughout the day, he paid everyone 50% more than we’d agreed on.

He handed everyone their checks individually. Again, remembered their names.

I cannot tell you how big of deal this is. We were, absolutely, bit players in the day. We were the lowest rung of the hired help ladder but we all felt that we were doing something of critical importance and we were helping out a friend.

No one on my team had met Matt prior to this event – yet they very much behaved throughout the day as if they were emotionally invested in the outcome on behalf of their friend Matt.

Edge – one of the caterers was using the proximity to music industry power to engage in some self-promotion. This broke one of those minor rules.

Upon getting wind of it, Matt was quick and purposeful about having that person removed. He wasn’t gratuitously asserting his place in the food chain. But when it came time to, he did not hesitate.

Particularly when you’re as kind as Matt was to all of us working the event, it’s still good for people to see a reminder that he knows he’s in charge.

The net result: it was a successful event in terms of us delivering on what the client needed.

There was more to it than that.

I don’t remember everyone from USC who joined us that day. But they do.

I’ll run into someone in person or on social media and they’ll mention it. Fondly. Enthusiastically

The majority of the people on the team were already fans of GNR. A handful had musical tastes that ran to different genres. They, to this day, have bought, downloaded, streamed everything they’ve ever come across that Matt Sorum has played on. Because of how great he was to them.

It’s a salient lesson: your employee today may well be your customer tomorrow.

Maybe that’s the truest measure of leadership. I haven’t spoken to Matt in about 28 years. There is no way he remembers me or anything about me and it’s even less likely he remembers any of the people on that team.

But we all remember him.

We all felt like we had a relationship with him. We all want to find ways to help him, even something so small as downloading a new track he’s released.

None of us ever even made it high up enough a food chain to be on an org chart that featured Matt above us. But if he looks back over his shoulder, we’re all there following him.


The Alchemist
Experience Alchemists

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