What business can learn from Bowie

One of my best reads of 2015 was a fantastic book by James Kerr called ‘Legacy’. The book contains Kerr’s account of his privileged access to one of the world’s great sport teams, New Zealand’s rugby union All Blacks, and attempts to understand how this small island nation with limited funds has not only risen to the top of world rugby but sustained its position for such an unlikely period of time. Kerr then takes several lessons from the team’s preparation, culture, methods and, ultimately, success that can be applied to leadership and management in the business world. One of the critical ideas that reoccurs throughout the book and that is embedded in the All Blacks’ culture is that of always ‘going for the gap’. This is to say that, even at times of success, those associated with that famous, proud black jersey always seek to reinvent and improve their methods to ensure that others cannot catch up and replicate.

Parallels are strikingly evident in the remarkable longevity, success and popularity of David Bowie. In an industry where, dictated by the vast promotional expense of record labels, musicians can rise to the top of the popular pyramid nearly as quickly as they fall away into obscurity, you cannot help but admire someone – a boy from Brixton, no less – who remained such a prominent figure over five decades.

Bowie was that rare breed of artist (for he was undeniably more than just a musician) in that what he produced didn’t merely reflect the world around him, rather the world around him came to reflect him and his work. His androgyny, notably on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, in which a young Bowie appeared in a dress, helped to liberate a generation and was a major influence on acceptance to gay and transgender rights, and the unique, timeless sound of Space Oddity and tales of the mystical Major Tom whirling around space became the archetypal aesthetic and soundtrack of an age of space exploration and surge of sci-fi in the zeitgeist. Successful businesses often do the same: the Ubers, Facebooks, Apples and AirBNBs of this world are rarely responding to consumer habits, instead they are dictating them. In an often quoted line, Henry Ford once quipped “If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses” and perhaps Steve Jobs’s most valuable quality was a rare ability to know what the consumer wanted before the consumer knew themselves. Successful businesses make the world bend around them, not the other way around. Bowie had a remarkable knack of doing the same.

A related, critical feature of many businesses’ success is an ability to predict the future and, ahead of their competition, see the way that the world is moving. Bowie was an undoubted visionary; he embraced the internet and seemingly predicted the rise of music streaming and the impact it would have on his industry. He was quick to buy back the rights to his back catalogue and sell music online, banking on the loyalty of his fans and customer base that had been established over so many decades.

Bowie could even provide a lesson in how to deal with scandal. In 1976, during a particularly drug-fuelled period of his career, he stepped off a train at Victoria station and delivered what appeared to be a fascist salute in front of a waiting press pack. This exacerbated previous comments in an interview in a Swedish newspaper where the musician controversially said: “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. I mean, fascist in its truest sense, not Nazi. After all, fascism is really nationalism. In a sense, it is a very pure communism.” For a short while Bowie was vilified and rebuked for his comments and actions. He dealt with this scandal in the only sustainable way; he resisted apologies and charm offensives and simply focused on the root cause. He cleaned himself up. Any business or brand faced with a potentially crippling controversy should pay attention.

Perhaps David Bowie’s most important ingredient in his longevity was unrivalled ability to innovate and reinvent. He killed off Ziggy at the height of its popularity, the Thin White Duke went the same way, only to always return with a new, more intriguing brand and aesthetic than ever before. He never rested on the laurels of his popularity and mere evolution (Nokia) was resisted in favour of reinvention (Apple). In the truest sense, Bowie always ‘went for the gap’, rather than competing in a market place where imitators were trying to replicate what he was already doing. As Kerr concludes of the All Blacks, surely that’s a sound basis for any successful business strategy.

Written by
Alex Brennan, Client Director