Most leadership lessons come from management books, but sometimes they pop up in unexpected places, like Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards' memoir, Life (Little, Brown, 2010). As you would expect, Life is filled with rollicking stories, like the one in which a very ticked-off Charlie Watts punched out a very wasted Mick Jagger for imperiously demanding to see "his drummer" at five in the morning. But it also offers a few business insights.

One of them is the importance of focus and prioritization to a successful career. You might think that being the lead guitarist of the world's greatest bar band is all about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. But the 550-page book makes it clear that rock 'n' roll always comes first for Richards. The fact that Richards takes his music seriously shouldn't be surprising. After all, you don't get paid a king's ransom for more than half a century for doing your job unless you're damn good at it.

My favorite business lesson in Life comes in a throwaway paragraph early on. It's 1960, and just as Richards turns 17, England abolishes National Service--its version of a compulsory draft.

"Suddenly you felt like you had two free years, but it was a complete illusion, of course," remembers Richards. "You didn't know what to do with it. Even your parents didn't know what to do with those years, because they were expecting you to disappear at eighteen. It all happened so fast. My life had been plodding along nicely until I found out there was no National Service. There was no way I was going to get out of this goddamn morass, the council estate, the very small horizons."

And then, Richards chucks out a hand grenade of a sentence. "Of course," he says offhandedly, "if I'd done it, I'd probably be a general by now." General Keith Richards of the British Army? General Keef? That seems like a bit of a stretch.

Not so, claims Richards. "There's no way to stop a primate. If I'm in, I'm in," he says. "When they got me in the scouts, I was a patrol leader in three months. I clearly like to run guys about. Give me a platoon, I'll do a good job. Give me a company, I'll do even better. Give me a division, and I'll do wonders. I like to motivate guys, and that's what came in handy with the Stones. I'm really good at pulling a bunch of guys together. If I can pull a bunch of useless Rastas into a viable band and also the Winos, a decidedly unruly band of men, I've got something there."

What exactly has Richards got? "It's not a matter of cracking the whip, it's a matter of just sticking around, doing it, so they know you're in there, leading from the front and not from behind," explains Richards. "And to me, it's not a matter of who's number one, it's what works."

And that's as good a lesson in leadership as you'll find in any business book.

Published on: Jun 1, 2017
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