Perhaps – like me – you’ve shared office space with a salesman who says things like “Let’s get ready to rock’n’roll”. Or with people for whom it’s clear that being among the world’s leading insurance providers and property development agencies may – or may not – deliver them financial rewards, but is something they’d enjoy more if it came with more of the roar of the crowd (smell of greasepaint optional).

There’s at least one consultancy out there using rock and roll as the metaphor for business and leadership development – let me direct you to Human Dynamics, their offshoot The Academy of Rock and their book, Sex, Leadership And Rock N’ Roll: Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock. They have impressive figures – Tom Peters and Charles Handy among them – affording them accolades, an impressive client list and good reviews of the book at Amazon. I’m not going to pretend I’ve read it – honesty is a good policy – and I’ll trust the testimonials that their work is well received. What baffles me is the appeal of the idea.

I confess I’ve seen both sides of this particular analogy. I’ve played guitar on records you may well have heard: I won’t confess if you won’t, but their creation was less glamorous than it might seem to the outsider. And this article is being drafted with vintage replacement parts of an actual Fender Stratocaster about 3 feet from my left elbow. (Go on, pretend you’re impressed …) But the appeal of “rock’n’roll” as a management and leadership analogy still by-passes me.

To quote the author (Peter Cook) from the book – via an Amazon reviewer – on the modern, less-structured and formalized business world:

Leading in such a business environment is no longer like conducting an orchestra, where the band has the same sheet music, players know what instruments they must play and the audience accept what they are given. In 21st century society, leaders must move from being score writers to becoming improvisers.”

Well yes, and I’ve said so myself (there’s an earlier post here called Downsizing the Orchestra where – unfamiliar with Peter Cook’s book at the time – I wrote almost the same point). But how much rock music is actually that improvised – aren’t we talking “guitar solos at most” here? How far is rock’n’roll the exciting, improvised world that it’s being sold as here?

Rock’n’roll is as much a business as estate agency, engineering or fish-gutting. The attrition rate is higher even than restaurants. Most performers are in hock to record companies (essentially venture capitalists and distribution companies rolled into one) for decades, and dance to their tune 24 hours a day or get abandoned.  Markets for individual products can drop away in a flash. This paragraph could go on for a very long time, but I think you have the idea. Rock’n’roll is – as an enterprise – not very rock’n’roll at all. (Given the nightlife of many major cities, the ‘fringe benefits’ of the accompanying lifestyle are just as likely to be enjoyed by those estate agents or fish gutters too.)

With corporate sponsorship of tours, huge financial deals with event promoters rather than recording companies, and the likes of Iggy Pop selling car insurance, the rock industry is also as responsible as all those industries it would have you believe it isn’t.

I’m not sure how many of other bloggers to have commented on the book are familiar with its contents, but a degree of scorn seems to the title of the songsheet they’ve found themselves humming along to. Flip Chart Fairytales for one offered a snort of derision. And in a later post on the same blog, Peter Cook himself offered his own partial defence:

Mixing art and business is bound to generate hot reactions. Most of my muso friends think that I’m a disgrace for even mentioning music in the same sentence as management. Madonna and Prince don’t have such a problem with this.

So, lighten up Mr HR Director, it’s only an extended metaphor with more relevant lessons for people who can stand the bullshit language created by the so-called professionals.

Not all leadership gurus are bad as indeed not all rock stars are good.”

I’m always happy to lighten up, and I don’t have a real problem with Mr Cook and his work – if he’s succeeding and helping others do the same, more power to him, his elbow and his plectrum. I might titter a bit, but I’m sure he’s survived bigger threats. But I do worry that in the search for ways of attracting the attention of middle and senior management, one of the leading examples of – and I mean this most sincerely folks – “dumb entertainment” gets to be a winner.

Face it, if a key part of achieving real sustainable success is overcoming our bad habits and avoiding the temptations to do things that aren’t necessarily going to help us in the long run, you could  pick a better example, couldn’t you? Given all we know about most people’s inability to help themselves, what is the apparent success of luring them in with a myth of self-destructive living telling us.

It seems only right to finish with a song, and I almost went for something obvious. Something as obvious as Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, in fact. (I own quite a number of Stratocasters for my age, and shame is increasingly an alien concept.) But I figured a ballad was what was really needed. And especially for the words of this example …

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