Are there lessons to be learned for teams and leaders from the 40th Anniversary of Punk?

“History is made by those who say no.” Jon Savage (Sex Pistols Biographer)


This year marks the 40th anniversary of Punk Rock

It reminds us of a challenging genre of music, and perhaps also a timely cultural example of experimentation for leaders and teams.  Perhaps it’s time to channel some “inner Punk” for forging breakthrough moments in challenging and complex times.

Why did Punk Rock make the splash that it did?

It broke away from convention.  It took rock music back to a simple raw energy.  It took risks and it innovated.  It communicated clearly and with authenticity.  Attitude and conviction mattered just as much, if not more than talent alone.

These are all things that successful businesses will need to do for survival in an increasingly complex world.

Many music historians argue that Punk made its impact as a reaction to what had become overly produced, and increasingly conformist, offerings from the 1970’s music scene.  A new generation craved a genuine break from convention, authenticity and a return to raw energy. 

Bands like The Saints, The Ramones, The Clash, Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols drove the ‘breakaway’ from “the norm” with a “DIY”, home made and innovative style. 

Contemporary organisational culture often seems afflicted by the same malaise and lack of authenticity of late 70’s music. 

Aspiring managers appear to be working on ‘image crafting’, and the cultivation of conformist affectations that suit corporate cultural norms as opposed to just being themselves.  Consequently, people will crave simple authenticity that they can embrace and be inspired by. 

In many workplaces, authenticity seems to have been suppressed with overly complex, insincere and carefully crafted workplace language, job titles, and contrived culture taking its place.  This pollutes what could and should be a simpler understanding of how people want to work with one another and this stifles genuine engagement and innovation.

Punk pioneers ‘put it out there’, had vision, and wanted to change the world with an anti-authoritarian streak that at first glance seems quite at odds with business convention.  It does however have much more in common with rebellious start-ups, disruptors and entrepreneurs. 

Unfortunately, like most movements, Punk eventually did succumb and became a sanitized parody of itself. However, on its 40th anniversary we remember its genuinely rebellious innovators for the true ‘innovations’ that were at the vanguard. 

To survive disruption, or to become a disruptor yourself, maybe one need only discover that “inner Punk” and get your teams to do the same.  Cut through the all too obviously contrived management and HR jargon, see past job titles alone and then seek to truly understand in raw form what people authentically bring to the team.  

What do people actually want to do to remain engaged and express themselves and also ‘be themselves’ at work?    

As unconventional trailblazers the founders of Punk embodied an authenticity that’s rarely seen in modern popular music and contemporary business culture.  Its impact was also disproportionate to any musical talent brought by its founders, as is often pointed out by its critics? 

So what can business people possibly learn from the 40th anniversary of Punk?

Be authentic

Quality people can easily spot ‘fake’, and they generally don’t like it, even if their workplace culture may demand that they pretend to for survival and to fit in.  When ‘real’ appears, many will just flock to it instead.  Punk appealed in this manner with its raw authenticity and loveable confidence (even when musical talent lacked).  Early Punk exploded from bold folks who had something to say, and were confident to ‘put it out there’ warts and all.  Honest energy outweighed overly crafted production values.   Authenticity and honesty are truly inspiring to people, and help build stronger relationships (and loyal ‘fans’).   In teams, and for leaders, authenticity matters a great deal, and we don’t need to love, or even like one another, just to understand one another better in a genuine manner.

Talent and skill are great, but well-timed attitude can best them both 

Talent alone can be overrated.  Experience and skill are of course, needed, however a great lesson from Punk is that energy and attitude can also matter. Punk innovators often lacked technical ability to say the least, but spearheaded an innovative movement regardless. 

A leader may not play every instrument well, but technical skill is but one ingredient for a great team.  There’s “eligibility” (the science of the CV, training, boxes ticked etc) and then there’s “suitability” (the art of just bringing your own energy, and being the right fit as leader or team member based on who you really are). 

It’s truly worth looking at both when building teams at work. 

Don't be afraid to experiment

The ground-breaking bands and icons of Punk were not perfect, ‘note for note’ musical technicians.  On the contrary, many simply used music as their vehicle to communicate messages, and to express themselves with some raw clarity.   This often originated from garage band trial and error and only eventual spontaneous breakthroughs as opposed to any carefully cultivated technical R&D process. 

The will to be bold, take risks and work from a basis of energy and instinct can pay off. 

Break things down/return to raw and energetic simplicity

As a reaction to overly produced and contrived musical forms, Punk broke through and prospered from an honest rawness and simplicity. Great energy, cultural disruption and expression was thus carried in a simple and clear format that really shook things up.  A new generation seeking to express itself embraced that clarity and energy in place of complexity and affectation.  

Businesses that can innovate and cut through complexity with a simple message can also attract a new generation of fans.

Break from convention (but also don't be afraid to borrow shamelessly)

When mediocrity and contrived complexity in music missed the mark, then simple energetic “do it yourself” Punk cut through.   This was all too challenging and dangerous in the eyes of the establishment.  When the momentum kicked in, a potent new movement was born.  Irrespective of how it was ultimately co-opted and watered down, the purity of its genesis and early days inspired many new artists, ways of doing things and is still held aloft for the many changes it brought to music, fashion, graphic design, art, politics and even to business 40 years later.   Punk did however also borrow / shamelessly steal from previous tribal, sub cultural and musical forms and transformed them to suit its own ends.

“No other subculture illustrates more clearly the importance of theft and transformation in the development of style than punk.  It incorporates conscious reference to the legacy of all preceding subcultures.” Helen Rees

As I see it, just as Punk disrupted and broke through the music and culture of its day, workplace culture is at risk of being disrupted by an undercurrent of and deep craving for authenticity, unless it gets back to basics itself.

At Sabre, we like to help break through the jargon with the elegant simplicity of tools like The Belbin Model that actually enables people to quickly look past job titles and affectations alone to meaningfully work with what they really bring to the team.

Be yourself, just an authentic yet well managed version of yourself.

Keeping it simple and keeping it real works, and it has a profound impact, albeit challenging at first for those trying to break free of the ‘old ways’.

Maybe it’s time for another Punk revolution, and not just for music, but also for workplace culture?



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