Saturday, April 4, 2020

6 Leadership Lessons from the Tragically Hip
by Jordan Cleland 

I’m writing this as I wind down a communications, fund development and leadership coaching consulting practice; and in the midst of a lot of pandemic induced spare time in my evenings and weekends that are normally full of sports coaching. I have been, in this very unusual time, drawn to all things Tragically Hip – reading the exceptional book “The Never Ending Present” by Michael Barclay, watching the amazing documentary "Long Time Running" for the second and third times. And listening and listening. And reminiscing. Reflecting on what this iconic band and undeniable slice of Canadiana can teach us about leadership.

1. The democratization of credit and rewards for performance – If you check the album covers of almost all bands, they will give a song writing credit to usually just one or two of the members. This has a big impact on financial royalties payable. A few of the Hip’s songs from their earliest albums are credited to one or two members, but just a few years into this band’s incredible 30 year run they made the conscious decision that all of their songs would heretofore be credited to “The Tagically Hip.” Their crediting system also mirrored their decision-making system. It was clunky and awkward at times, but it enabled them towards sustained excellence in the long run. “If one of us is a riding a Peugot 10-speed and someone else is driving a Porsche, things aren’t gonna last.”

2. Willingness to innovate – Who says a band can only have one bassist and one lead guitar player? Very early on, the Hip made room for Gord Downie’s best friend Paul Langois in order to keep him from moving to Nashville.  It would seem that decision was golden too as the Hip are absolutely world renowned for their guitar sounds in their musical stylings.  Apart from just Downey’s poetic lyricism, the guitar wizardry and differentiation in both hard charging rockers and ethereal ballads is probably the very best attribute of the band.

3. Gamble on less experienced talent accompanied by hunger and fit – Don’t be afraid to take a flyer on a young inexperienced up and comer that’s got drive. The Hip’s original drummer wasn’t Johnny Fay. The original percussionist kept no-showing for rehearsals so they said, “we know this guy at the high school; he’s young, he’s eager. Let’s give him a call.” And did he ever work out for the long haul. I had a mentor that took a flyer out of left field on me. Then he did it again on another young colleague and we both grew really well into the positions. He believed in the adage of hire for talent and teach for skills, but had his own take on it: “Look for that Eye of the Tiger, then coach ‘em up.”

4.  Stick with teammates that strive for excellence and are deeply committed to the mission –  In the documentary "Long Time Running" by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, it’s revealed that at the start of the final Tragically Hip cross Canada farewell tour, the band was worried initially about Gord, and very legitimately so shortly after major brain surgery. Would he be able to perform? Would he have the physical stamina? Would he be able to remember the lyrics? Would he have seizure in front of 20,000 fans armed with smartphone video cameras? By the end of the Tour, guitarist Rob Baker confesses that to the contrary, Downie was driving them so deep into their playlist that the other band members weren’t sure that they remembered all of the chords and all of the music. The guy with the biggest excuse to take it easy was unrelenting in his insistence on playing 90 different songs and something from every single album.  A maniacal insistence on excellence forced everyone around him to be better.

5. Sometimes NOT working is key to your success – In "The Never Ending Present", Barclay quotes Bassist Gord Sinclair, “We worked when we wanted to and new how to stop when it wasn’t going anywhere. Sometimes not playing is just as important to the creative process.”  In a traditional work place, if all a person is ever doing is pushing through, grinding away at in-boxes, back-to-back-to-back meeting calendars, granular task lists, always burning the midnight oil, wearing busyness as an inputs focused badge of honour, he or she can become immersed and blinded in the minutiae and quickly lose perspective of the big picture. What’s most important in your organization and its mission? Make time for that. Make sure you’re whole as a person with outside interests so you can bring your absolute best to that mission in your job.

6. Be magnanimous and gracious if you’re further along in your career. Be a mentor. – Every single band that ever toured with and opened for the Hip makes an identical observation.  Paraphrasing the multitudes: “They’re so great and supportive. They talk to us, ask us questions, give pointers – headline acts almost never do that.  Then they take all the other opening acts out for dinner and as though they recognize we’re living out of our tour van, they will pick up the cheque.”

On the morning of Gord Downie’s death, Torquil Campbell of the band Stars called into CBC Radio’s Q the morning. 

“When I think of Gord Downie, I think of a guy who would sit on guitar cases at the side of the stage at festivals all day long before he went on as a headliner, and watch every band and cheer for them and clap for them and sing their songs and know their names and tell them they were beautiful and exemplify what is means to be an artist and a citizen and a friend and a community member. And that’s not just Gord, that’s everybody in the Hip. Everybody in music and art in Canada who has ever worked with the Hip or interacted with them, everybody knows this: those gentlemen exemplify kindness, professionalism, open-heartedness, fun, warmth, strength.”  — From Michael Barclay


Jordan Cleland is the President of Jordan Cleland Consulting where he does/did performance and leadership coaching, keynote and retreat speaking, fund development and public relations consulting to subsidize his addiction to being a volunteer coach in youth sports. He is currently in the process of wrapping up his sole proprietorship work to jump back into institutional leadership with the University Hospital Foundation.