Leadership Lessons from The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Documentary

As a life-long Beatles fan, I eagerly awaited the release of director Peter Jackson’s marathon documentary about the closing chapter in the legendary band’s story. Three episodes distill 57 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio conversation into about 8 hours of content, recorded during their Let It Be project. The series covers 22 days in January 1969, as the Beatles worked through their creative process to develop songs for a new album and prepare for their first live concert in two-and-a-half years. Much of the material John, Paul, George, and Ringo developed over those three weeks appeared on Let It Be, Abbey Road, and solo albums after the band broke up the following year.

In terms of creating new music, the Get Back documentary offers a fascinating peek into the way unformed ideas iterated into some of the most popular music of the last century. A melody line without lyrics, a bass riff, or a pattern of guitar chords morphed from the raw material into a finished product in a matter of days as the Beatles applied their gifts to the creative process.

As creators, the Beatles were masterful. Prolific and provocative, they pushed pop music boundaries in an unparalleled fashion. But the Beatles were, and still are, a business. In addition to rich musical creativity insights, the Get Back documentary shines a light on the Beatles’ organizational leadership. Here are four leadership lessons from the documentary:

  • Begin with the End in Mind – Stephen Covey’s second habit of highly effective people means starting an endeavor with a clear understanding of your destination. With a clear picture of the expected outcome, individuals, teams, and organizations can more easily define a path to the goal. Paul was clear about the record he wanted the Beatles to make. After a series of elaborate, highly orchestrated, and complex recordings (think Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band), Paul wanted to deliver an album, recorded live, in-studio, like in the early days of the band. Skip all the overdubs and production wizardry to deliver the raw feel and energy that had made the Beatles The Beatles. In a business setting, this translates to answering the question – What does success look like for this project?
  • Develop Role Clarity – Documentary filmmaker, Michael Lindsey-Hogg, was hired by the Beatles to direct the Get Back experience. He was given broad access to the Beatles in the recording studio throughout the project. One conversation between John and Paul, over lunch in the Apple Records lunchroom (captured through a microphone hidden in a vase on a lunch table), speaks to a lack of role clarity in the band. In discussing progress on the album, John says in essence – just tell us what you want us all to do, and we’ll do it. Paul responds saying – John, you’re the leader of the band, so you need to speak up. Throughout the documentary, conflicts emerge between band members due in part to a lack of role clarity. No one was clearly demonstrating leadership of the project (vision, priorities, strategy). While every role in an organization has a voice in the leadership process, the lesson is this – role clarity enhances organizational effectiveness, even in a rock band.
  • Address Team Challenges Head-on – In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, author Patrick Lencioni describes some of the most deleterious patterns teams experience – Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. The Get Back documentary shows quintessential examples that may have been rooted in Fear of Conflict. Unresolved tensions between John and Paul, George temporarily quitting the band out of frustration with unresolved conflicts, and Ringo occasionally appearing disengaged. John may have demonstrated a Lack of Commitment to the project by frequently showing up late to rehearsals. And while Paul put forth many ideas for song development, in some scenes, he appeared to step back from owning his position; Avoidance of Accountability. The point: Teams perform best when issues are addressed quickly, candidly, and thoroughly.
  • Identify Leading and Lagging Indicators of Waning Relevance – In my book, Leading from Zero: Seven Essential Elements of Earning Relevance, I define organizational relevance as the importance, pertinence, or meaningfulness stakeholders ascribe to an enterprise. Every organization must earn and sustain relevance with employees, customers, and partners to survive and thrive. While every organization is different, most have insight into the common leading and lagging indicators of relevance with stakeholders. For instance, businesses recognize changes in employee satisfaction trends or engagement measurements, increased employee absence or regrettable turnover levels as leading indicators relevance with team members may be in jeopardy. With customers, declining sales, fewer new customers, negative customer reviews are lagging indicators of diminishing relevance. In Get Back, the Beatles describe concerns that they are losing favor (relevance) with their audience. They demonstrate signs of diminishing relevance of the Beatles as an organization vis-à-vis growing frustrations with the business, varying levels of engagement as “employees” (of the Beatles business), and genuine questions about the importance of their work together. The takeaway – At the first signs of diminishing relevance, leaders must ask “what will assure earning relevance with our stakeholders today, tomorrow, and beyond?” Answers will inform necessary strategic and operating adjustments to fulfill the organization’s vision.   

The Let it Be album was one outcome of the Beatles’ January 1969 studio sessions. One-dozen enduring songs, still frequently streamed today. With 5 million album copies soldLet it Be was quite successful. By Beatles standards, sales ranked 7th of their top albums, behind Magical Mystery Tour (6 million sold), Abbey Road (10 million), The Beatles (16 million), Rubber Soul (16.5 million), Revolver (27 million), and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (32 million).

A second outcome following this project was the break-up of the Beatles. Since that time, the remaining Beatles, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney have discussed the reasons behind the break-up.  Challenges accompanying fame, business issues, personal, and family dynamics all played a role. Still, I wonder how things might have been different with a few leadership adjustments. Note to Self: Just Let it Be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *