The Thrill Is Gone: B. B. King and Leadership

BBKing_02092010_7670It was sad to wake up to the news Friday morning that B.B. King had passed away during the night. Not that it was unexpected: after he cancelled his tour last fall, then went on hospice care a few weeks ago, we knew the end was near. But it makes you feel blue to lose a hero.

Riley B. King was a pioneer in electric blues. He had the purest tone of any guitarist I have ever heard. He had a smooth, flowing style of playing, and could say more in two notes than many guitarists can say in thousands (and I said that before Lenny Kravitz did!). He helped to bring a beautiful ethnic art form to millions around the world. This white boy is very grateful for the blues.

But he also provided some valuable leadership lessons to us through his music and his work with other musicians. Let’s look at what seems significant to me.

First, and foremost, B.B. was an example of collaborative leadership. In concert, he frequently played with other guitarists who idolize him. If you have ever watched a group of blues guitarists play together, it is a tremendous show of collaboration. Each plays in a different register, and they defer to each other as they take their solos.

In these situations, the respect everyone had for B.B. was obvious. They deferred to him, but he gave it right back. 0He played with everybody and looked like he enjoyed doing it. In these group situations, he did not demand the spotlight: he shared it. Frequently the solo of another guitarist received an immediate compliment from him. That’s another good lesson!

Second, B.B. was not ego-driven. He was frequently introduced as the King of the Blues, but he didn’t let it go to his head. He said: “I just wonder where I was when the talent was being given out, like George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Eric Clapton… oh, there’s many more! I wouldn’t want to be like them, you understand, but I’d like to be equal, if you will.” But Jimmy Vaughan said that B.B. was the guitarist they were all trying to sound like – without success. Frequently during his shows, he would ask for the audience’s permission to solo: “Can I play Lucille now?” That doesn’t sound like a proud musician.

Third, he was an outstanding mentor. He loved playing with young musicians and did all he could to encourage the next generation of blues artists. He gladly shared the spotlight with them. Many experienced leaders could stand to learn from that example.

Fourth, like most blues musicians of his era, he worked hard in order to make it, and worked hard even after he had made it. During one year in the early sixties, he played 340 one-night stands! He developed his talents and worked around his weaknesses, and achieved mastery of his art. He once said “It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales.” He didn’t take his talents for granted.

Fifth, like many blues musicians of his era, he faced the challenges of racism and prejudice. And he didn’t hold grudges. He said “When people treat you mean, you dislike them for that, but not because of their person, who they are. I was born and raised in a segregated society, but when I left there, I had nobody I disliked other than the people that’d mistreated me, and that only lasted for as long as they were mistreating me.”

In spite of it all, he maintained a sense of humor, and he used his music to bring people of all races together. And that is the magic of good music: it has the power to unite humanity.

Finally, he had an interesting attitude to being on the road. Instead of partying, gambling, and other vices displayed by some musicians, B.B. made an effort to improve himself. Once the internet was generally available, he would carry a laptop on tour and study new things as he traveled. He even learned how to use a computer. He took great pride in that. He said “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

Even though I never saw B.B. King in person, and was not privileged to meet the great man, he touched my life in many ways. I will always be grateful for the music he added to the soundtrack of my life, and for the lessons he taught me.

Some parting words of advice from B.B.:

“You better not look down if you want to keep on flying
Put the hammer down keep it full speed ahead
You better not look back or you might just wind up crying
You can keep it moving if you don’t look down.”[1]
[1] Better Not Look Down. Jennings, Will and Sample, Joe. © Universal Music Publishing Group.

Do something, even if it’s wrong

My father-in-law, Werner Sommerfeld, has been a mechanical contractor for longer than I have known him. He immigrated to Salt Lake City in the early 1950’s. He is the epitome of hard work, high expectations, and integrity. His company slogan, “Old world craftsmanship; new world zeal” demonstrates that. When I was in dental school, I worked for him during my summers off. It was hard physical work, but it provided a good break from the long grind of graduate school. I remember that he would often tell his crew to “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” To him, being busy was far better than being idle. In idleness, we miss many opportunities. Momentum plays a part in that. Many times I have been in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. I frequently see openings for a desired lane change; but because I lack momentum, I cannot safely move into that gap. Newton’s first law of motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force. Whether in the physics lab or in our behavior, this law applies. If we are in motion, we can move into a gap more easily and take advantage of a needed course correction or a new opportunity. In the early years of the Civil War, General George McClellan had several opportunities to crush the rebellion and bring a horrific war to an early end. Because of his inaction; because he didn’t pursue the fleeing Confederate Army, they lived to fight again, and the war dragged on. Lincoln grew frustrated with McClellan’s delays and fired McClellan, and began a lengthy search for a new commander who would take decisive action. Inertia can be used to our advantage if we are in motion. We can more readily adapt to changing situations and take advantage of them when we are moving. However, a leader in motion sometimes needs to be a leader at rest. Just not for too long. Longfellow, in his Psalm of Life said: “Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.”[1] Sometimes a leader must wait, and “the waiting is the hardest part.”[2] Remember that you cannot always see what a leader sees or why he is waiting. And this should not be equated with idleness. But that is a topic for another post. Being a leader in motion will work to your benefit. It is easier to follow a leader who is moving in a definite direction. And it is usually harder to hit a moving target. Do something, even if the first try ends up being wrong! [1] Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893. [2] Petty, Tom. The Waiting. © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.