What All Leaders Can Learn From Van Halen

The classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap is said to have been inspired by the band Van Halen.  The classic comedy follows an eccentric and spoiled metal band on tour.  The screenwriters were rumored to have started crafting the script after reading an article claiming Van Halen demanded all brown M&M’s be removed from their snack bar backstage.  Weird, right? Maybe not. 

Back in the late seventies and early eighties, it was hard to find a bigger band than Van Halen.  The group consisted of a tight rhythm section, the greatest guitar player on the planet and a front man, David Lee Roth, who seemed like he was always on the edge of being out of control. 

Yet, Lee Roth’s image was a bit of a facade.  The singer is actually the son of a highly successful southern California surgeon and businessman and he seems to have picked up a little wisdom from his dad.  Lee Roth is the one who insisted on the infamous demand but there was a method to his madness.  He inserted the rider to test concert promoters.  If the lead singer walked back stage and found brown M&M’s, he knew the promoters had not read the contract carefully.  He knew then that he needed to inspect the sound system and stage to make sure they were up to snuff.  But if he found brown M&M’s had been removed, he knew he could likely trust the promoter to take care of important details.  Genius, right?

I could go on because the singer also managed to cut the time it took to tear down the stage in half but let’s stick with the M&M’s.  David Lee Roth, by his own admission, is not a detail guy, so he knew he needed to partner with those who are meticulous in nature.  Visionary leaders often detest numbers crunchers and vice-versa but the two need each other.

There never could have been a Steve Jobs without a Steve Wozniak.  Jobs was the visionary and the salesman but Wozniak was the craftsman who built the machines, which made Apple. Every successful endeavor needs two complimentary but often adversarial characters—the risk taker and the systems nerd.  Once the two recognize each other’s strengths, they create a balance that can take any organization to the next level.  Which one are you?  If you are a visionary leader, you need to put your people to the M&M test to find your potential partner.  If you naturally dig into details, you need to find a wild eyed leader who strikes you as a little crazy in order to get to the next level.  

For more, I highly recommend Les McKeown’s Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track—and Keeping It There.