I've been going through a phase recently of listening to audiobooks of rock and roll autobiographies of some of the musicians and bands whose output I love, while out on my morning walks. I tried Audible a few years back and couldn't get on board with it. I tuned out too easily and found myself walking along, realising that I hadn't been listening for the last five minutes but eventually I found that autobiographies have a style which keeps me engaged. Maybe it's something about being written in the first person, or maybe it's because they don't require a lot of thinking and concentration (especially the ones I've picked!) but either way, it's been enjoyable listening to the stories or rock 'n' roll excess.
The one I finished this week is by a Canadian singer called Sebastian Bach, most famous for his work as the frontman of New Jersey-based metal band Skid Row. Their first two albums, 1989s Skid Row and 1991's Slave to the Grind are two of my favourite albums of all time and the latter was the first metal album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard chart! After the grunge takeover, metal music fell out of popularity and following the tour in support of their third album, Subhuman Race, the band broke up in 1996. They eventually reformed and have toured extensively since (I've seen them twice in that time) but after their initial breakup, none of their lineups ever included Bach on vocals again and they've gone through a revolving door of singers since that time.
Sebastian Bach was a supremely gifted vocalist. As well as heavy, gritty, gutteral vocals that are trademarks of the metal genre, he was also capable of, and regularly deployed, soaring melodies and the band's ballads (I Remember You and 18 and Life from the debut album and Quicksand Jesus and In a Darkened Room from the sophomore effort) were arguably the songs which made the band's name and popularity. Even if you're not a metalhead, I implore you to listen to those tracks and let me know what you think. It'll be worth it for Scotti Hill's guitar solo on I Remember You alone!
Despite his talent and the band's success, however, Bach was also, by many accounts, a nightmare to work with! He was a good looking young man and as their fame and popularity increased, he was more and more often favoured for interviews and photo shoots ahead of the rest of the band. This is a common challenge with frontmen and can often breed resentment with the other musicians, particularly when those other musicians founded the band and write the songs, but Bach seemed to exacerbate this, even at one stage doing a photo shoot for an album sleeve without the rest of the band! In addition to this, his behaviour on and off stage, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, became more and more difficult to deal with, ultimately leading to the situation where the band choose to reform without him.
Another very notable story from Bach's past involved his wearing a very controversial t-shirt on stage, passed to him by a fan, with an anti-gay slogan, back in 1989. He initially tried to play the incident down, saying that he hadn't looked at the t-shirt before putting it on, but in interviews following it, he doubled down on the situation by making homophobic remarks and comments, saying he didn't condone or understand homosexuality. Years later, however, Bach had grown and matured and his position had changed. One of his heroes from the 1970s and 80s, Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, came out as gay in 1998 and in the years that followed, Bach once walked out of an interview when the interviewer described Halford using a homophobic slur.
I found the omission of both of these stories unusual, because they were so significant and high profile. Even without knowing a huge amount about Bach's background, I was very familiar with both of them and I fully expected to hear him talk about them in his book (in the audiobook version I listened to, he narrates it himself and even adds in bonus content with little asides and stories along the way). These stories, by being excluded from the book, became the elephant in the room and had the effect of making me less likely to believe Bach's accounts of other things that the book covered. Autobiographies are, naturally, a very one-sided view of situations that are often nuanced and complex, but it's my experience that when the author (or the ghost writer in some cases!) directly addresses the controversial or unsavoury incidents which have the potential to paint them in a poor light, it makes me much more likely to believe the accounts of stories which paint them in a positive light.
As I reflected on this, I've come to recognise the same in leaders and the way in which they share messages. If a leader communicates with their team, particularly during challenging times, and doesn't address the big topics which are on the mind of the audience, it can have the opposite effect from the one which the leader desired. Instead of making them look visible, human, engaged with their people and willing to put themselves out there, it makes the leader look out of touch and gives the impression that they are hiding from the things that really matter.
This summer I hosted a townhall event for the CEO of a sport which was going through a patch of disillusionment with its membership. A number of decisions had been made which had impacted on the running of the sport, some unpopular but designed to progress the sport over the longer term and others, on reflection, well intended but ill-considered. Thanks to social media (that's not a phrase I often use!) the CEO and I were very clear about the issues that the membership had and so I suggested that we tackle these head on. Rather than making a generic statement and then opening for a Q&A which could quickly get out of hand, why not format the first part of the meeting as a Q&A between the CEO and I, addressing all of the elephants in the room and pulling no punches. This had the impact of allowing the CEO to prepare appropriate responses to these topics (holding his hands up and recognising his mistakes in some areas while providing clarity and rationale, standing firm in others) and by the time the Q&A portion arrived, the thorniest of the topics had been handled and the membership felt like they had been listened to and understood.
The session was excellent, and feedback afterwards showed that it had significantly improved the image of the CEO, who was shown to be someone who cared about the sport, was in-touch with the membership and was willing to be challenged publicly on things which mattered. Of course, plenty of work still remains to be done to overcome the challenges raised and put right some things which had gone wrong, but suddenly the mood in the membership was one of support rather than a baying mob, looking for resignations.
Take some time to reflect on your communications approach. Who are your audience and what are the issues that really matter to them. If you're not clear, how can you find out? Use this knowledge to show empathy and understanding, as well as a willingness to tackle the big issues. You'll be amazed at the impact!