Breaking Paradigms: The Beatles

In developing global leaders one of the most important principles is that a deep understanding of one’s relationship to one’s own culture is crucial for top performance in a new culture. Our customs, attitudes and ways of getting things done, things that we take for granted in our own lives, are not just “the way things are.” These unwritten rules, or paradigms, are specific parts of our particular culture. They are the paradigms that we have to break to function in a new culture. The better that global leaders can understand the paradigms of their own cultures, the better they can move outside of them to function in the new culture.

True global leaders repatriate to their own countries with a fresh vision that enables them to see things in a new light, to go beyond the paradigms that hold back those who have not acquired a true global perspective. This is what happened to the Beatles when they went to Hamburg, Germany, as an unknown and inexperienced rock group, in the summer of 1960.

Faced with the culture shock of being in Germany and the need to get big things done internationally (playing six to nine hours every night), they adapted quickly to a completely different set of expectations. The German audiences wanted more a “show” than British ones and the Beatles loosened up and livened up on stage in a way that would have been unacceptable back in England. Their music progressed quickly and began to attract, not just the raunchy crowds that frequented the clubs in Hamburg, but painters and photographers wanting to see musical performance that was fresh and new.

A brilliant young German photographer named Astrid Kirchherr was brought to see them by her boyfriend, a talented illustrator named Klaus Voorman. She was fascinated by these “beautiful boys.” British culture had had the paradigm of the celebrity artist as rebel and outrageous anti-hero outside the pale of society, but the ideal of the celebrity artist as a beautiful and sensitive genius at the heart of society was a German paradigm. By integrating this ideal into their wisecracking Liverpool personalities, John, Paul and George created their global leadership persona™.

The most obvious form of this was the new haircuts, soon to become their international hallmark. Up to this point, they had worn the swept-back, heavily greased, juvenile delinquent manes (a la Marlon Brando) that were the style paradigm for most rock musicians. The new haircut, cleaner, with soft hair over the ears and girlish bangs, was unheard of back in England, but quite appropriate for a young philosopher or artist in Germany.

These and other changes were not just adapted in a calculating or imitative way. They were the result of their relations with Kirchherr, Voorman and other young German intellectuals.

Each of them had their own relationships with other cultures. John had long been influenced by African-American jug band and skiffle music. Paul’s vocal style was influenced by the energetic African-American singer Little Richard. George was very much attuned to French gypsy jazz traditions from Dzango Reinhardt and others. And all three of them were heavily influenced by the African-American dancing and church music traditions expressed in new form by Elvis Presley, and the Mexican rhythms and music structure in the work of Buddy Holly. At the same time, the Rolling Stones were immersing themselves in the hard-driving, electric guitar, Chicago style of Muddy Waters.

All of these global leaders, the Beatles, Stones, Presley and others were not just imitating or using styles or paradigms from other cultures. Nor were they just smashing up the paradigms of their own culture. They were engaged in a constant cycle: increasing their awareness of their own place in their own culture, using this awareness to find ways to be themselves in the new framework of a different culture, then using these newfound abilities in the new culture to increase their awareness of their own culture even further.

This type of ever increasing cross-cultural awareness gives global leaders the ability to get big things done in foreign places. It also completely changes their relationship to the paradigms they grew up with; and this enables them to know what paradigms can be broken, how to break them and how to make the process of paradigm breaking lead to success.

What if your next overseas assignment became your “trip to Hamburg?”

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