What can The Who’s Pete Townshend teach us about Leadership?

Lately, and nostalgically, I have been revisiting some of the music of my youth. The Who has made something of a popular comeback of late with many of their tracks being used as theme music in US TV shows such as House, NCIS and Two and a Half Men. But before those famous songs, came The Who’s seminal rock opera Tommy.

Tommy is an extraordinary work crafted by The Who’s main songsmith and master guitarist, Pete Townshend. When I listened to Tommy again and watched the 1975 Ken Russell film of the same name, it became clear that the storyline is a prime example of how adopting an open growth mindset can lead to extraordinary leadership, success and self-insight.

Tommy tells the tale of a young boy (Tommy) who witnesses his Father (believed killed in the war) murder his wife’s new lover after he returns home (obviously unexpectedly) and discovers them in bed. The young impressionable Tommy is told unequivocally by his parents that;

You didn’t hear it
You didn’t see it.
You won’t say nothing to no one
ever in your life.

Tommy promptly shuts himself psychologically off from the world. He adopts an extremely closed mindset and effectively becomes almost autistic;

Deaf Dumb and blind boy
He’s in a quiet vibration land

Tommy grows up effectively cut off from the world although his mind is still sharp and functioning from behind its self-imposed walls. Tommy’s Mother never gives up on him returning to the world. This is one of Tommy’s themes; a Mother’s never ending love and hope for her child. In his teens, Tommy mysteriously, savant-like, becomes a pinball champion;

That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball

As the pinball wizard, Tommy attracts a huge following of fans (disciples) although of course he can’t communicate with them as he still has a closed mindset. Tommy’s parents have become rich on Tommy’s pinball winnings. His Mother eventually and dramatically breaks through the walls and Tommy starts to communicate again. His parents use his new Messianic status to effectively make even more money. Tommy is being used. However as he re-enters the world he rejects all the trappings of wealth and power. Tommy gains self-insight (depicted as staring into mirrors) and adopts an open learning mindset;

I’M FREE-I’m free,
And freedom tastes of reality,
I’m free-I’m free,
AN’ I’m waiting for you to follow me.

If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple’
But you’ve been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
And no one had the guts to leave the temple!

Tommy’s new self-insight and obvious leadership charisma sees him gain even more followers.

Interestingly, through adopting Tommy’s unconventional techniques, his disciples ultimately develop their own self-insight and reject him (and other leaders), realising they can make their own futures for themselves. Tommy has led them to enlightenment through giving them insight into themselves and their own innate abilities. He has facilitated their self-leadership capabilities.

This is the essence of coaching and mentoring. A good coach will allow and facilitate an individual’s development of self-insight and understanding so that they can ultimately lead themselves and thus lead others. Giving a coaching subject the ability to move from a closed mindset to an open learning growth mindset is the key.

As an aside, Tommy also presciently sings at one point on his love of Twitter;

Right behind you,
I see the millions.
On you,
I see the glory.
From you,
I get opinions.
From you,
I get the story.

For a confidential discussion regarding how a Mindset coach can facilitate your team’s development of an open learning growth mindset, please use our enquiry form and a consultant will be in touch shortly.

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