Leadership Lessons from The Beatles ‘Get Back’

23-Dec-2021

The recent Beatles mini-series Get Back on Disney is not just a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of a great band. It also offers some interesting lessons in leadership and project management.

The series is based on film footage and audio recordings from three weeks in January 1969 as The Beatles created and record a new live album. Originally titled Get Back, this material was eventually released as the film and album ‘Let it Be’. While that album is not considered one of their best, Let it Be includes three number one singles, as well as classic songs like ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Two of Us’.

Peter Jackson took the original source material from 52 years ago, digitally enhanced it and created a new and more complete documentary demonstrating The Beatles in-studio process. The mini-series is eight hours long spread over three episodes, with each episode roughly covering one week in January 1969. Here are eight lessons I observed from watching the show:

  1. Creativity engages people

There’s a moment that’s been tweeted frequently where Paul McCartney is playing on the bass and just riffing and it turns into the song ‘Get Back.’ At the beginning George Harrison and Ringo Starr are watching. They are clearly bored, waiting for John Lennon to show up. When they hear the recognizable tune emerge as Paul is creating in the moment they can’t help but become engaged. George starts playing along and Ringo starts clapping and banging on Riser he is sitting on. It’s almost as if they can’t help but be caught in the moment.

(you can watch that moment here: https://youtu.be/07q95KiVguc )

2. Decision making process needs to be clear

The Beatles famously claimed that they had no leader. That decisions were made unanimously. In today’s terminology they would describe themselves as a ‘self-directed team’. While it’s true that the group made decisions together in reality there was a very clear hierarchy in the band: The same order that they joined The Beatles was basically who had the most clout. John was the leader followed by Paul then by George and Ringo.

At this point in their career John was disengaged and George resented being in third place. Everyone was using that veto power to avoid decisions.

The idea behind the ‘Get Back’ project was to create a documentary about making a new live album. They would create new songs; they would rehearse those songs; and then they would record those songs live somewhere. The band couldn’t agree where to do the live portion. A Roman amphitheatre, a hilltop in London, and the Cavern in Liverpool are all discussed.

As each different idea was floated for consideration, they were all shot down by one of the band members. This of course leads to eventually the iconic rooftop concert on top of their own offices. But in the absence of a decision maker and the absence of a clear decision-making process they end up missing all sorts of chances to do the live finale in other interesting places.

At the very beginning of the show Harrison remarks about his time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan and The Band. He says that with them everything is consensus-driven and how great it was to work that way. Ironically The Band also falls apart a few years later when they can’t maintain consensus and resent the self-appointed leader.

I would argue that in the past The Beatles had actually made decisions based on consensus. Not unanimity. Consensus is more “yes, I can live with what you want to do”, versus unanimity, which is “yes I absolutely want to do that”. If George wanted to go to India to study with the Maharaja, why not? If Paul wants to pretend they’re a different band named ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club’, sure let’s try that. If John wants to put out an experimental drone of ‘number 9’, they can make that work too.

When everyone feels they are getting a chance to drive the consensus, the process can work. But if people feel that their voice isn’t being heard, and people aren’t willing to compromise, it degrades to ‘everyone has a veto’.

Finally, they only all agree to do the rooftop concert when John reasserts his leadership and the others (particularly George and Ringo) follow along.

Regardless of what decision-making process there is, it needs to be clear, and it needs a mechanism to avoid deadlocks.

3. Even a great team needs a leader

Although I earlier described The Beatles as a self-directed team, they in fact had always had clear outside leadership. Brian Epstein and George Martin provided business and musical oversight for them. As they became more musically confident in the studio they needed Martin less and they clearly suffered from a lack of direction after Epstein’s death.

 In that leadership void and with Lennon distracted by his new relationship with Yoko Ono (and heroin) McCartney stepped in to direct the band. He had always had a bit of a role as the music arranger. In the film you see Paul particularly in episode one trying to direct the group and knowing that he is annoying George. Yet someone needs to make decisions.

Lennon and McCartney even talk about the leadership problem after Harrison quits. Paul laments the lack of an authority figure since Brian Epstein died. McCartney says to Lennon something like “you’ve always been the leader and I’ve been number two”. John replies pointing out that Harrison is now their equal as a songwriter. And that by not treating him as an equal they caused the rift.

4. Great teams do great things when their backs are against the wall

The Beatles gave themselves three weeks to create a new album.

When they came into Twickenham studios, they had no songs completely prepared and no real idea of exactly what they were going to do. In that three-week period, you see them creating classics like ‘Get Back’, ‘Two of Us’, and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ as well as resurrecting and polishing songs like ‘One after 909’ and ‘Across the Universe’. In fact you hear them starting about half of the songs on the follow-on album, Abbey Road. Some solo songs like ‘All Things Must Pass’ , ‘Gimme Some Truth’, ‘Another Day’, ‘Jealous Guy’ (with completely different lyrics) and ‘Back Seat of my Car’.

With a deadline fast approaching they resolved their decision issues. They finished writing the songs and create some iconic music.

By putting the right amount of pressure on the team, with a tough but achievable deadline,  (particularly one they set themselves) you can achieve big goals.  

5. Leaders need to listen to the other team members and adapt

One of the things I found remarkable is the complete change in Paul McCartney’s behavior between episode one and episode two. In the first episode (at Twickenham Studios), McCartney is frankly bossy. Micromanaging George in particular. But also telling Ringo how to play the drums. That episode ends with Harrison quitting the band in a quiet understated British way. (“I’m leaving the band now. See you round the clubs.”) If you are fan of McCartney’s you might want to fast-forward to the scene where he creates ‘Get Back’, then skip the rest of that episode!

Off camera between episodes one and two the band members meet twice, to figure out how to go forward. They don’t record or report what happens in those meetings, but in the second episode (and even before Billy Preston arrives) Paul is much less bossy; he’s listens more and is more collaborative.

Great leaders see what’s working and what’s not working and adjust to give the rest of the team what they need.

6. People need a safe place to practice (and then can perform anywhere)

In the first of the three episodes The Beatles are playing in Twickenham, a movie studio. The space is large and uncomfortable. The band complain about the cold and that it’s hard to create in that sterile environment.

There is a big change that comes over them in episode two when they move to their office on Savile Row. It’s their own space and they feel comfortable. When they arrive they discover that the space isn’t ready to be a music studio. As a result, there are cables all over the place; the space is small, and they’re on top of each other. But in fact because it’s their office they’re happy, and the mood dramatically lightens. They’re much more comfortable and creative even before Billy Preston arrives.

Then of course once they get to the rooftop concert they are performing live for the first time in years. Its windy, its cold (this is in January in London England). They are confronted by the police. Yet they still manage to get the songs recorded; get the video and create a moment.

That practice in a safe place is what made them able to perform when needed.

7. Changing team members changes the dynamic

George Harrison had previously realized during the sessions for the self-titled album (aka the White album) that people behave better when there’s a guest in the studio. He knew that ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a great song but John and Paul weren’t paying any attention. When he brought in Eric Clapton to play guitar everyone became more collaborative. That created a highlight track for the album.

During the Let it Be sessions that guest role is played by Billy Preston. No one likes to air their dirty laundry in front of strangers or friends even. So everyone was on their best behaviour.

Whether it is a guest or adding or replacing a team member, that changes the dynamic between all the players.

8. Leverage the Power of Humour

The Beatles use humour constantly to diffuse negative situations, reduce boredom and help create a positive environment. When Harrison quits Lennon first remarks “if he’s not back by Tuesday we’ll get Clapton”. Then when someone asks “what should we do now” minutes later, Lennon says “let’s split up his gear between us”.

Referring to the difficulty getting Ringo to agree to perform outside of England, McCartney says “maybe Jimmy Nicol will play.” Nicol had substituted for Ringo Starr for a few weeks on tour early in the band’s run. Another scene shows Lennon and McCartney singing ‘Two of Us’ through clenched teeth. To learn the lyrics, They have to repeat the song over and over; this is just one way to do it without losing all the spontaneity.

Humour breaks the tension, and makes people relax.

In that vein, to summarize:  While The Beatles took a Long and Winding Road, they did manage to Get Back to playing live, with songs heard Across the Universe. I’ve Got a Feeling that with these leadership lessons, you will also be able to Let it Be.

The Beatles Get Back is streaming on Disney+.

Published by

Mark Dymond, P.Eng

With over 20 years of consulting experience I've worked with clients in the banking, retail, travel and government sectors. Based in Toronto, Canada, currently I lead the Cloud consulting team for IBM Canada. I've led successful project and program teams in Canada, the US, and Europe of more than 200 people. Thoughts, comments and mistakes are most definitely my own!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s