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3 Lessons from James Brown's Terrible, Great Leadership Style

The singer's biopic, Get On Up, comes out Friday. Here's how entrepreneurs can channel the Godfather of Soul's careerist passions--and avoid the mistakes of his ugly side.
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Even before seeing Get On Up, the biopic coming out tomorrow, I can type this much about James Brown: He started with nothing and built an empire.

That empire, according to a profile in GQ, is worth "tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars." On that basis alone, might his life--even his management style--offer lessons for entrepreneurs in their own quests to build something of value? 

It's a tricky answer: Brown was far from an ideal role model. He punched the women in his life. He was tyrannical. Get On Up, by most counts, neither sidesteps nor sugarcoats these damning negatives.

Still, the so-called Godfather of Soul really did start out with nothing. In the GQ profile, Sean Flynn writes:

Mr. Brown did, in fact, grow up in a whorehouse. His mother walked out on his father when he was 4, and two years later, he was sent to live in his aunt Honey's brothel in Augusta. He shined shoes for the soldiers from Fort Gordon, danced for nickels and pennies they'd flip at his feet, watched them shamble into Aunt Honey's...watched them shuffle back out.

My purpose here, then, is merely to ask: Are there lessons in Brown's life that business leaders can learn from? I searched, and found three useful attributes in his leadership style: He was passionate. He was exceptionally hard-working. And he was superb at gauging how to please his customers--and quickly acting on what he learned. 

1. Passionate leadership. There's no shortage of entrepreneurs who'll vouch for the role passion plays in effective leadership. One of the reasons, as articulated by GoPro founder Nick Woodman, is that work seems less like work when you actually love what you're doing. Eileen Gittins, founder of Blurb, says that pursuing her passion has made her more creative.

Of course, passion can quickly become a negative if you can't control it. Brown had a violent temper, and even when he wasn't physically abusive, he was a threatening person to be around. It's clear he wasn't exactly a star at employee retention. The New York Times, in its review of Get On Up, notes what a tough manager Brown could be in one of the movie's many rehearsal scenes:  

It is one of several scenes in which he mistreats his musicians, many of whom abandon him, beginning with his original gospel group, the Famous Flames. Only Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), his longtime best friend, returns....Throughout the movie, wives and girlfriends come and go, but their embattled friendship persists, although it, too, is eventually severed.

Okay. So what are the positive aspects of Brown's passion? According to an article on NPR.org, they could be found in his seize-the-day performance urgency. 

RJ Smith, author of the 2012 Brown biography The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, told NPR that the very phrase, "the one," summed up Brown's urgency. "It's about that first beat of the measure that Brown wanted emphasized at all times... A lot of pop music was emphasizing the two and the four. He came in hard from the beginning. He wanted to get your attention right away."

2. A demonstrable work ethic. Some leaders like to model work-life balance. They'll argue that a leader should demonstrate working smart, rather than working hard. Mehdi Maghsoodnia, CEO of Rafter, has even asserted that a great leader should often do very little. 

But you can find just as many leaders who believe that they should be models of a diligent, old-school, no-shortcuts work ethic. Kevin Ollie, the head coach of the national champion University of Connecticut men's basketball team, stressed a "take the stairs" philosophy with his team, from the moment he took the job in September, 2012. "We're going to take the stairs," he said that day, according to the Hartford Courant. "Escalators are for cowards." Inc.com's Will Yakowicz explains:

This quote is about not taking the easy road, working hard toward a goal, and achieving it in due time. Ollie pushed his players to be a team and work together. There's no such thing as an overnight success. To win you have to take one step at a time, which is exactly what the Huskies did with each game.

For Brown, there were musical equivalents of taking the stairs--that is, intentionally doing it the hard way. One scene in Get On Up, according to the Times, "shows a brutal rehearsal in which Brown, at his most tyrannical, grows increasingly exasperated with his musicians during a run-through of the seminal funk song 'Cold Sweat.' Brown finally hammers home his point by shouting that no matter what their instruments may look like, they are all drums."

The point? Play harder. Pound your instrument like you're unafraid to break it. Play the song like your life--and your livelihood--depends on it.

3. Gauge what pleases your customers--and act on it. Brown had a superb sense of when his audience was enthralled--and when they were bored. More than this, he made entertaining the audience his top priority.

He learned how to do this from his early experiences. His career began in the 1950s, in the South, on the so-called Chitlin' circuit. "Those were audiences that were desperate to be entertained," Smith tells NPR. "They spent their hard-earned dollar, and if you didn't entertain them, they would let you know fast." The article continues: 

Brown closely studied those audiences' reactions. "He knew when an audience was turning away from a song before they did," says Smith. "He would cut it off in the middle of a tune, and go to the next one."

Today, of course, entrepreneurs go to great lengths to learn what crowds want, and to give it to them--sometimes in real time.

Brown's legacy is complicated, to the say the least. But the more you read about him, the more you realize one thing: He knew how to please the crowd. In that, at least, there are worse legacies to leave behind. 

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Aug 1, 2014




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