Lennon, Leadership, and Why You Shouldn’t Always Be the ‘Smartest Person in the Room'

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  • By Chris Collette
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Lennon, Leadership, and Why You Shouldn’t Always Be the ‘Smartest Person in the Room'

The 'smartest person in the room'. That title typically evokes with a sense of status and exceptionality. But what if you being the smartest one in the room is actually a disadvantage?

The Beatles

We’re well into October now, and that means that the release of the remastered Revolver, The Beatles 1966 LP, is less than a month away from its release.  Considered by many to be among the greatest bands of all-time, The Beatles’ story is well documented, starting from the humblest of beginnings as the Quarrymen all the way through releasing an astonishing catalogue of art in the roughly 7 years spanning 1963 through 1970.


Earlier this year I had the pleasure of ‘attending’ a virtual seminar on Confident Leadership, presented by Roman 3 Academy.  It was an eye-opening session in which they explained situations that I’ve either experienced personally or witnessed over the years.  While there were several intriguing talking points, there are a few I’d really like to focus on in this post which are taken from: the Domains of Integrity Leadership, and the Deaths of the Modern Leader.


Reviewing my scribblings, I noted 3 points that relevant to this topic:

  • 2 of the Domains of Integrity Leadership
    • Moral Courage – be brave enough to do the right thing
    • Honest Acknowledgement – acknowledge one’s own shortcomings and the effort/opinions of others
  • 1 of the Deaths of the Modern Leader
    • Self-Preservation – lacking the ability to make unpopular decisions, saving face, spending mental energy protecting one’s own job, or paranoia about one’s reputation

So what do any of these have to do with John Lennon?  I’m getting there.


John Lennon as Leader

Before they became The Beatles, John Lennon was the front man of The Quarry Men, a skiffle group in Liverpool. 


Paul recalls his first meeting with John: “I remember coming into the field where they had the fete…up on this stage there was a few lads around and there was one particular guy I noticed at the front… he was making a good job of it.  I remember being quite impressed.  He was doing a song by the Del-Vikings called Come Go With Me and the thing about it was he obviously didn’t know the words but he was pulling in lyrics from blues songs…”


John’s recollection: “And we met and we talked after the show, and I saw he had talent and he was playing guitar backstage and doing Twenty Flight Rock by Eddie Cochran.  I was the singer and the leader and I made the decision whether to have him in the group or not.  Was it better to have a guy that was better than the people I had in? Obviously. Or not?  And that decision was to let Paul in to make the group stronger.  And I turned around to him right then on first meeting and said ‘do you want to join the group’ and I think he said yes the next day.”


In his statement John refers to Paul as ‘better than the people I had in’.  It’s worth questioning whether John was including himself in this group.  While John appeared outwardly a confident front man for the group (as evidenced by Paul’s recollection), there is some supporting evidence that he was aware of his shortcomings as a musician or at least insecure about his perceived weaknesses:

  • Generally, he avoided taking on lead guitar parts whereas Paul’s very capable soloing efforts can be heard on Taxman and Another Girl
  • Though few would agree with John's assessment, it’s well documented that he was self-conscious about his voice, often using double tracking to cover small variations in his performance when recording


I suspect that, even upon their first meeting, John was aware that Paul was the more competent musician in terms of technical ability (queue up the barrage of contrary comments).  He could have allowed the instinct for self-preservation dominate his thinking and said nothing to Paul, carrying on being the standout ‘star’ of the Quarry Men.  John didn’t do that.  Instead, he demonstrated honest acknowledgement in electing to invite talent into the group that would strengthen it and potentially threaten his own status within it.  It’s a quality he would demonstrate again shortly after his meeting with Paul when inviting George Harrison to join.


In 1962 when The Beatles were recording their first single, Love Me Do, a replacement drummer (Andy White) was brought in for one of the sessions.  While it seemed there was an undercurrent that Pete Best wasn’t the right fit for the group, George Martin’s direction to replace the drummer (on the recording, not permanently) on that single may have been the 'last straw' in deciding to acquire Ringo Starr as a more permanent replacement.  In this case, John’s (or perhaps the group’s) decision to replace their drummer meant placing a friendship at risk and would ultimately lead to backlash from their established fan base. 


Looking back at The Beatles purely as artists, it’s easy to overlook the critical decisions to change the band’s lineup prior to settling what would be the cultural phenomenon we all came to know as John, Paul, George, and Ringo.  Looking at them as a business, it’s difficult to imagine The Beatles ever becoming the juggernaut they did without John’s leadership in the early years, and without the addition of Paul McCartney (and subsequently George Harrison and Ringo Starr). If not for John's willingness to put his status of 'smartest person in the room' at risk, the world may have missed out on something truly special.

  • Have you witnessed examples of moral courage, honest acknowledgement, or self-preservation in your workplace?
  • Where might your organization go if you embrace the principles of moral courage and honest acknowledgement?
  • What limitations might you be placing on your company by giving in to behaviours associated with self-preservation?


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