3 thoughts about leadership and teamwork inspired by the Beatles

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Spoiler alert: Even though many details about the Beatles’ final collaborations are well-known, there are some very special moments in the ‘Get Back’ documentary that have never before been made public. Encountering them unexpectedly while watching ‘Get Back’ is exciting, so please be aware this post references some of them.

My husband is a lifelong, diehard Beatles fan, so when Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ dropped on Thanksgiving, we wasted no time in settling on the couch to watch the first installment of the three-part documentary, and then the 2nd and 3rd parts as they were released on subsequent days that week. 

‘Get Back’ follows the band at the height of its creative powers as the four teammates pursue some incredibly challenging goals: writing and rehearsing fourteen new songs in two weeks, filming the process, releasing the new music as an album, and debuting it in a live performance (again, all within two weeks).

With a runtime of eight hours, ‘Get Back’ gradually and carefully unspools the minutiae of the Beatles’ creative process, serving up micro-moments of inspiration, collaboration, and negotiation that occurred among the four bandmates and with the production team supporting their work. The film offers inspiring and sometimes painful insights into teamwork, creativity, leadership, and storytelling. Here are three observations that came to mind as I watched it.

Granted, there were some power struggles among the Beatles, since Paul McCartney and John Lennon tended to dominate the creative process, yet the brotherly bond shared by the four bandmates is evident throughout the film as they craft new music, joke around, and discuss mundane topics ranging from headlines of the day to the tea and toast that were ubiquitous in the recording studio. 

There is one moment in particular that I think illustrates the deep bond shared by the four men:  After a particularly grueling and contentious recording session, a frustrated George Harrison suddenly quits the band (he later returns). The camera is on Paul McCartney when news of Harrison’s departure is shared with his bandmates. Seeing tears well up in Paul’s eyes as he quietly processes the news is devastating. It looked to me like he was realizing (or being reminded) that the end of the band was near, if not that day, then soon, and he was grieving. Obviously, grief is not enjoyable, but imagine being part of a team that means so much to you that the thought of leaving it fills you with that kind of intense sadness. I’ll take the grief if it’s part of the experience of forging a deep bond with teammates and creating something meaningful together. 

There’s actually a growing body of research about the important role teams play in human well-being. Teamwork makes us smarter and more productive. It improves our creativity, communication, and efficiency. It makes businesses more profitable (21% more profitable according to one study). In addition, a recent survey of 1,000 workers across multiple industries conducted by software provider Atlassian found that members of well-functioning teams were 80% more likely to report higher emotional well-being. Conversely, in a survey by Salesforce, 86% of respondents said a lack of collaboration was the reason their projects had failed. 

A fascinating deeper dive into the impact and importance of teamwork can be found in a special issue of American Psychologist, the scholarly journal of the American Psychological Association, and also in the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt on hive psychology, which explores how happiness is correlated with losing oneself in a greater whole. 

The bottom line: Being on a team profoundly improves our quality of life.

In 1967, Brian Epstein, the man who discovered the Beatles and guided the band to fame, died of a drug overdose. Two years later, at the start of the Abby Road recording sessions, the band was clearly still reeling from that loss and the subsequent lack of what Paul termed a “central daddy figure” who could keep the four musicians focused on their work. 

In ‘Get Back’, McCartney tries to fill that void, continually reminding his bandmates about what they were trying to achieve at that moment in time. Specifically, that they had agreed to take a fresh approach with the new album, which is why the 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio recordings Michael Lindsay-Hogg captured for the ‘Let It Be’ documentary exists. Paul never lost sight of the original vision for the project (i.e. to create new music, a film, and a live performance in fourteen days), and worked hard to keep the band focused on what they needed to deliver. 

There are various perspectives on the leadership role Paul assigned himself during the ‘Let It Be’ recordings. Some feel it was a natural extension of the leadership he’d always provided to the band in partnership with John Lennon. Others have described it as an act of ego and arrogance. Personally, I think it was a bit of both. Either way, if Paul hadn’t taken charge, I don’t think the project would have been completed. The four Beatles were not in a similar state of mind at that time about the music they were creating. Someone needed to provide leadership that broke through the noise and distractions, set a direction, and guide the ship to port. Fortunately for the Beatles (and the rest of us), Paul McCartney chose to be that leader 

Today, 50 years later and nearly two years into a pandemic and other global crises, surveys tell a sobering story about the state of leadership, particularly in business. More than 50% of CEOs say developing the next generation of leaders is their top challenge. They’ll need to work quickly, because 63% of Millennials, who make up the largest segment of today’s workforce, feel they aren’t being fully developed as leaders by their employers, and they are quick to seek new employment as a result. (Millennials, along with the generation behind them – GenZ – are fueling the Great Resignation.) In fact, a recent study by Gallup found that only 29% of Millennials are engaged at work, which means only three in ten are “emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company,” and another 16% are actively disengaged, meaning they are “more or less out to do damage to their company.” 

The bottom line: Ambitious work isn’t possible without dedicated leadership. 

The studio where the Beatles recorded most of Let It Be was really crowded. That’s because there were a bunch of people there every day helping to bring the project to life. They included keyboardist Billy Preston, film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, cameraman Les Parrott, engineer/producer Glyn Johns, producer George Martin, Yoko Ono, and Linda McCartney. 

My point: Yes, the Beatles were arguably creative geniuses. And yes, the four of them created their amazing music. However, when giving birth to that music, they were assisted by a team that provided various types of support ranging from technical to artistic to emotional.

The myth of the lone or singular genius is just that – a myth, one that in recent years has begun to be acknowledged and studied. For example, in his book The Myths of Creativity, author David Burkus wrote this about inventor Thomas Edison, who has historically been portrayed as a lone genius:

“Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone….As their work progressed, the team quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name….according to Francis Jehl, Edison’s long-time assistant, those inside knew that ‘Edison [was] in reality a collective noun and [meant] the work of many men.’”

It’s also been observed that Albert Einstein may be credited for discovering the theory of relativity, but he actually refined his concept as a result of conversations with friends and colleagues.  

The bottom line: Creativity is a team sport, and humanity is a collective noun.

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