Keith Urban – 9 Lessons in Leadership

13 May 2022

As unlikely as it may seem, Chris argues, '...if you want to be a good leader - be more Keith!'

I went to a concert by Keith Urban at the Hammersmith Apollo last week.**

You may not be a fan of country music but, if you get the chance to see Mr Urban perform, you should take it. It is an uplifting experience. He has some great songs and is the consummate entertainer. You end up being won over by his easy charm, clapping along furiously, hopping from one leg to the other and joining in the choruses.

He is also a natural leader and I took away 9 lessons in leadership.

1. Make a good first impression

He and the band arrive on stage, ushered in by London’s Calling and a bracing light show, and go straight into one of his strongest, most up-beat songs, “Days go by”:

So, you better start livin’ right now

‘Cause days go by.

Immediately the audience feels good about the evening to come and ready to lean into an occasion which will surely be fun.

2. Develop an early bond with your audience

After the first two songs, Keith roams around the stage reading aloud signs held up by the audience, waving up to those at the back and asking who has come furthest (a comfortable win for the man from Brisbane). One sign held aloft says “Please can I sing The Fighter with you?” - one of his best known songs and a duet with Carrie Underwood.

Why not?”, says Keith, inviting the lady up on to the stage. They chat (she is a teacher we discover), Keith and his guitar lead off and the lady in question, Sarah from Denmark, does a fine job with the song.

By now, of course, the audience is putty in Keith’s hands and ready to follow him over the nearest cliff.

3. Bring your A game to each occasion

Keith is a relatively prolific song-writer, having produced 10 studio albums, and a terrific guitarist. You genuinely feel that he inhabits his guitar. He switches regularly between guitars and, whilst some will think that country rock is a bit naff, he is a genuinely impressive musician who gives his all to his craft.

The best leaders work hard and wear their excellence lightly, like Keith.

4. Be varied

After an early section of fast paced songs Keith does his famous duet, One too Many, with Pink (Pink being projected at the sides of the stage) and then jumps down with an acoustic guitar into the audience. From a microphone set up in the crowd he does the recent Adele song, Easy on me, and reflects on the fact that this is not an easy time for the world. He follows this with another slow number before jumping back on the stage to lead the audience in the karaoke number that lurks in us all (The Lion sleeps tonight) - and then gets back to some raucous rock.

You can’t get bored with all this. The variety holds the attention and winds you in. And all leaders need that terrain in their communication and messaging.

5. Be energetic

In a 2 hour show Keith displays jaw-dropping energy - in terms of lively singing and playing but also in terms of conversation and engagement with the audience.

A recent Harvard Business Review article by Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron entitled “The Best Business Leaders have a Contagious Positive Energy” starts with the following thought:

Researchers and leaders have looked for the secret to successful leadership for centuries. Dozens of new books each year promise to deliver the answer. We decided to examine this question empirically, and when we did, we found that the greatest predictor of success for leaders is not their charisma, influence, or power. It is not personality, attractiveness, or innovative genius. The one thing that supersedes all these factors is positive relational energy: the energy exchanged between people that helps uplift, enthuse, and renew them.”

6. Celebrate others

At various points during the show, Keith takes time out to appreciate and celebrate other members of the band. He starts with the bass guitarist who can also “sing some” and then, at well-spaced moments, spotlights the other lead guitarist, the keyboards player and the drummer. Each member of the team is introduced and plays a piece which demonstrates that they are more than just “support”. And at the end of the show they line up, arms around shoulders, and take a bow.

You sense that, although Keith is the boss, this is a team effort and embraced by him as a team effort - and that the band is genuinely giving 110% because of that.

And so it is in the business world. Thoughtful CEOs will credit the entire ExCo for good results or a vital contract win and successful law firm partners will often think and speak in terms of “our clients” and not “my clients”.

Jim Collins in Good to Great describes the concept of the window and the mirror:

Level 5 leaders look out the window to attribute success to factors other than themselves. When things go poorly, however, they look in the mirror and blame themselves, taking full responsibility.”

7. Bring shape to proceedings

Having opened with a bang, majored on audience involvement and moved between faster and more reflective material there is, perhaps inevitably, a big finish with two fast well-known tracks and a thunderstorm of confetti - followed by an encore that evolved from acoustic to electric.

In all of this Keith was the “conductor” bringing a sense of “completeness” to the occasion. Any of you who have been to an Eric Clapton concert will know how different things can be. He is a wonderful musician but does not typically bring a sense of warm glow to the event. It’s all a bit, well, austere.

Similarly, business leaders need to shape meetings, summarise at key moments and lead things to a natural crescendo with a crisp outline of what we have decided and what is going to happen next. It all brings structure and confidence.

8. Be accessible

After the encore and the bow to the audience I expected the band to leave the stage and make for the after-party.

But no. Keith came down to the front of the stage and spent ages signing autographs – on everything from tickets to shoes to T shirts - and chatting with fans. He must have been shattered but he gave his time with much ease and grace.

The most effective leaders invest in their team in a selfless way and treat the everyone, however senior or junior, with care and attention. It reminds me of the old adage - do the right thing, even when no-one is looking.

9. Do it now

There was an immediacy about the whole evening. We live in perplexing and worrying times and so, whether a leader or not, we should do it now.

Back to lines from Days go by:

We think about tomorrow, then it slips away

We talk about forever but we’ve only got today.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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