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What Keith Richards Taught Me About Partnerships

What Keith Richards Taught Me About Partnerships

One of the upsides (or depending on your view, downsides) of being a leadership coach is that I see leadership lessons everywhere. A television interview provides a cautionary tale about executive presence, an actor in a movie sets an example for finding connection, or a seemingly unrelated book has an interesting takeaway for management. In my Entrepreneur.com column, I even wrote once about leadership tips from Mad Men. Yes, they are there if you look. (Even from Pete Campbell.)

My latest one is from Keith Richards’ autobiography My Life, a crazy romp of a story. Now I didn’t pick up this book to contemplate Richards as a role model for pretty much anything. I read it for the same reasons everyone else did — debauchery on a grand scale, name dropping, the real answer to the did he or didn’t he blood transfusion (spoiler alert, he didn’t), to figure out how he’s still alive, and to learn how the Rolling Stones do it after all these years.

But I found some profound insights about partnership in it, as he describes in surprising detail the struggles he’s had with Mick Jagger during their 40 year career, and how they’ve risen above it. They began their story as two young boys intensely focused on making music for the joy of it, and then grow into completely different men as the Rolling Stones become big business. Their roles in the band change over time as life leads them in divergent directions, and at various times each thinks they are more important to the band than the other. At one point they get into a public melee by hurling expletives at each other through the press. But always, often through the help of facilitation, they come back together realizing that the sum of their talents is far superior than what either can do alone. (As witness, two anemic solo careers while the Stones play to sold out stadiums.)

Omitting the rock star drama and observing the pure interpersonal dynamics and functionality, the Richards/Jagger partnership had reverberations of any other one I know, including the two that I’ve had in my career. And yet, against significant odds, these two pull it off. What’s that about? (It’s not money as these two are rich beyond measure.)

Think about it, the odds of a business partnership lasting for 40 years are close to nil. People grow and change, as do their preferences and perspectives. In my case, I compare my partnerships to a first marriage and a second marriage. The first one I started when I was young, and our fates were as intertwined as our bank accounts. We were risky, daring, and emotions ran high. It was highly elastic and needed to be. My second one, which I’m in now, is much different. We each come to the table with established careers and reputations. It’s much more about straightforward economics, mutual benefit and enjoyment. Very different partnerships I consider successful, fulfilling in their own ways and perfectly suited to my places in time. 

So what did Keith Richards figure out that made the Stones stick together when so many other partnerships naturally disband? Here are a few lessons I took away:

1. He never lost the conviction that the partnership produced magic that the individuals could not.  Richards can’t quite label it, but knows that he and Jagger have a chemistry that’s created precisely because of their differences, not in spite of them.

2. He acknowledged what his partner brought to the table that he didn’t have, and gave him credit for it. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist in the business. He’s proud of him.

3. He honored the shared history. Often we quickly forget everything we’ve endured with someone and simply focus on “what has he or she done lately.” The blood, sweat and tears have deep personal resonance and deserve respect.

4. He separated the emotions from the work. Even when they were feuding, Richards and Jagger composed music in the studio together.

5.  And from Richards’ perspective, they retained an ability to speak unvarnished truth to each other, and because of that, remained each other’s most trusted counsel.

Now I realized there are some die-hard Stones historians who may read this and have a different take. Or folks who can’t imagine finding any redeeming qualities in Keith Richards. But I stand in awe of 40 years of successful partnering, and as a Stones fan myself, am happy to reap the benefits from it.

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