No Time for Losers
The power to rewire stories: Four things Freddie Mercury can teach us about leadership, collaboration - and life.
I have a thing for Queen. Sometimes I think I've watched every Queen video posted on Youtube. One of my favorite videos is a documentary made by British tenor Alfie Boe called "Freddie Mercury Saved My Life". I wasn't sure why this story moved me so much at first - although it is a great rags-to-riches kind of story - but then it occurred to me that I'd actually learned a lot thinking about his life that I could bring back into my own work in leadership development.
Four of the biggest lessons, at least for me ...
1. Take yourself seriously. Everyone always says you shouldn't take yourself seriously, but in the beginning of a career or building an entrepreneurial venture at least, you had better, because you're the only one who will. The transformation of Farrokh Bulsara, a shy immigrant kid from Zanzibar growing up in the poor mill town of Bradford, Yorkshire, into Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant front man of Queen, was one of the most remarkable transformations of all time. Despite his limited formal musical training, lack of conventional good looks, and British racism, his intense self-scrutiny helped him develop a new idea of himself that went far beyond anything anybody who knew him had imagined he might become. "The biggest influence on Freddie was Freddie," said Brian May, in the documentary.
2. Care about your audience. Sociologists will tell you that among musicians as almost any other skilled profession, the work involved in becoming a professional is so intense that they often develop a contempt for the audience. The world of the Seventies Rock was particularly susceptible to this kind of attitude. But Freddie Mercury did not share this mindset. People who knew him say he always cared about his audience. That lack of self-involvement is part of the reason many critics rate Queen's 25 minute set at the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985 as one of the best live performances of all time - even more as other, more self-involved iconic groups who performed that July day, such as Led Zeppelin, failed to make any connection.
3. Use your deepest emotions. As a gay man growing up in a society where homosexuality had just been legalized, and as an ethnic Indian trying to succeed in a country that did not yet fully accept its immigrants, Freddie Mercury faced many frustrations. However, instead of withdrawing or lashing out in unproductive ways, he channeled his vulnerability back into his work, and made a connection with his audience that still endures in the memory of the people who saw his performances live and in the people who discover him only even now. You can see it in such moments as his rendition of "Love of My Life", at the Rock Montreal concert in 1981.
Fortunately for the rest of us, this power isn't restricted to the musically talented: Brené Brown, a professor of social work at the University of Houston, found after interviewing hundreds of people that those who are good at making emotional connections are unusually open to others about their personal vulnerabilities. "They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful," Brown explained in a 2010 TED talk.
4. Take a little high, a little low. A talented but largely untrained musician, Freddie grew up recognizing fewer barriers between high and low art than most professional musicians. This allowed him to borrow not only from rock but other genres, including opera, and write songs that he couldn't have written if he had played by the rules. It also allowed him to enrich his work through some unusual collaborations, such as his duet with Spanish diva Monserrat Caballé, who helped him break into the notoriously snobbish world of opera. He ignored social barriers too, such as being unafraid of the commercial and social consequences of appearing in drag in the "I want to break free" video, although it apparently hurt sales in prudish North America.
But the best lesson of all that can be learned from the life of Freddie Mercury, perhaps, is that if you work with enough love, you can make something that lasts. Freddie Mercury has been gone now for nearly 14 years, but his work is still very much alive. The band he co-founded recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still recording and collaborating, much as it did when he was part of it. Millions of people still enjoy their music - which over time, has become all of our music - and there's still no end in sight. All thanks to Freddie Mercury, a champion of the world who become a champion for the world.