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Leadership Inspiration from Les Paul


If you've read this blog for awhile, you know that I'm fascinated and inspired by what people do in and with their lives. I started this week by blogging about Julia Child and I'm going to end it with some thoughts about Les Paul who died Thursday at age 94.

If, like me, your musical formative years were in the 60's, 70's and 80's, you probably know Les Paul best from all of the rockers who played the guitar that bore his name. Let's go down the list a little bit: Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and, yes, I have to acknowledge the guys from Kiss, Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley (some of you, no doubt, picked up on the Kiss reference in the Shout It Out loud reference in my last post). A pretty impressive list of guitar heroes for sure, but we might not have heard of any of them if it wasn't for the person called Les Paul.

As documented in these obits from the New York Times and the Washington Post, Les Paul basically invented the electric guitar and a lot of the other technology that made rock and roll possible. The man was passionate about music and innovation and combined those passions to great effect. After a childhood piano teacher wrote his mother a note that said, "Your boy, Lester, will never learn music," Paul had learned to play the harmonica, guitar and banjo by the time he was a teenager. His first invention apparently came at age 10 when he made a harmonica holder out of a coat hanger so he could play the harmonica and guitar at the same time. (Somewhere right now, Bob Dylan is feeling very grateful.) A few years later, Les put a phonograph needle wired to a radio speaker inside his acoustic guitar so the crowd at the local drive-in could hear him play. He kept tinkering and eventually came up with what he called "the log" which was basically a board with two pickups attached to a guitar neck. It was the first solid body guitar. He got so much grief over the way it looked that he put a traditional guitar body around it purely for cosmetic reasons. Oh, and by the way, he also played a key role in inventing multi track recording. (No multi track recording, no Sgt. Pepper.)

You can see the results of Les Paul's vision and passion in this short clip from a TV show that featured him and his wife Mary Ford. (Without multi track recording is there any way she could sound like this just singing in her garden?) In addition to showing off his technically wizardry, this clip also shows that Les Paul was one heck of a guitarist. Take a look.

Why do I think Les Paul is such an inspiration for leaders? It can pretty much be summed up in this quote from the man himself that ran in the Washington Post obituary:

"I wanted people to hear me," he told the publication Guitar Player in 2002. "That's where the whole idea of a solid-body guitar came from. In the '30s, the archtop electric was such an apologetic instrument. On the bandstand, it was so difficult battling with a drummer, the horns, and all the instruments that had so much power.
"With a solid-body, guitarists could get louder and express themselves," he said. "Instead of being wimps, we'd become one of the most powerful people in the band. We could turn that mother up and do what we couldn't do before."

Embedded in that quote are some pretty important characteristics of great leaders such as vision, the passion to connect with others, shared power and innovation. With last month's death of Walter Cronkite, the first TV anchorman, the recent emphasis on Julia Child, the first TV chef, and now with the passing of Les Paul, a true musical innovator, we've been reminded lately of the power of passion and persistence. Find what you love to do and stick with it. I know I made that same point earlier this week, but I just appreciate what Les Paul gave us so much that I needed to say it again.

Now, go find your favorite song with a solo played on a Les Paul, crank up the volume and rock on.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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