David Bowie, the iconic pop star, was a true opposable mind.

Roger Martin, author of The Opposable Mind, defines what successful business people have as integrative thinking: "The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each."

"There's new music, there's old music and there's  David Bowie." From David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum

Bowie put his individual mark on everything he worked on and yet he was a supreme collaborator. He was one of the biggest performers of our time and yet he was shy. He was a musician who was incredibly visual. He was a singer who was trained as a mime. His creativity was boundless and yet he too could get stuck. Even his eyes appeared to be opposing colors. 

Here are five leadership lessons we can learn from Bowie. 

1. Be individualistic and collaborative.

David Bowie put his creative mark not just on his music but on everything that he did. He imagined the whole: sketching his own album covers, writing his lyrics, creating his own make-up. "I must have the total image of a stage show," he said in his 1974 interview in Rolling Stone Magazine. "It has to be total with me. I'm just not content writing songs, I want to make it three-dimensional." 

Within this total vision, he was a collaborator extraordinaire. He collaborated with fashion designers (Yamamoto), photographers (Brian Duffy), writers and producers (Tony Visconti), make-up artists (Pierre Laroche) and musicians (Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, to name a few).

The takeaway: First have a complete vision about every part of your work and then be seriously collaborative about bringing them to life.

2. Be an introvert and an extravert.

Often we think that we need to choose between being an introvert or an extravert, but the sweet spot is being both. Bowie was painfully shy, but he created stage personas that helped him become someone else, a star, on stage. His make-up, hair, costumes, shoes were all tools that transformed him on stage into Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane.

"I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn't really have the nerve to sing my songs ... I decided to do them in disguise. ... Rather than be me -- which must be incredibly boring to anyone -- I'd take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do." 13 Quotes to Remember David Bowie the Right Way

The takeaway: Nurture a persona that you can call on when you want to be your best performing self.

3. Exercise two talents at once.

His genius was music, but he was also a visual thinker. Bowie was an art student, a singer who drew his album covers and a painter later in life. As Melena Ryzik of the New York Times put it, "Transmuting visual cool into magnetic listening pleasure: that was Bowie's hallmark for the length of his protean, nearly 55-year career." 

The takeaway: Identify 2 talents or strengths that can be combined to become your unique super power.

4. Practice your strength and its opposite.

Bowie trained as a mime with Lindsey Kemp and learned to move and express himself with no words. Miming is the polar opposite of singing. His work with Kemp helped him "reimagine the way rock music is performed live," according to Tim Lewis of The Guardian. 

The takeaway: Think of what the polar opposite of your key strength is and then explore how it can add a new dimension to your  work.

5. Be prolific even when stuck.

It is hard to imagine Bowie stuck, he made it all seem easy. But Bowie had a well-worn out deck of Oblique Strategies cards, created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the seventies and gifted to him by Eno. According to the website Improvised Life, "the cards are meant to be picked at random when a musician or artist found themselves 'stuck' and in need of a shift of view. Bowie clearly got a lot of use out of them." Here are some examples from the cards:

  • Don't be frightened to display your talents
  • Think of the radio
  • Use an unacceptable color
  • Work at a different speed
  • Ask your body
  • Do nothing for as long as possible.

The takeaway: Make it look easy by having tools that help you get unstuck.

Published on: Apr 19, 2018
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