Below is the fourth installment in our series, Leading by Listening. In this series we explore multiple facets of listening and its role in organizational leadership.

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
―T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood
“In music, we take something that we love and we build upon it.”
―Mark Ronson

In May of this year, employees of the small indie record label, Matador tossed thousands of newly pressed records into a dumpster to be destroyed. Not only was this a major financial setback for the tiny company, but as the label’s VP of Sales stated: “It is soul destroying to work towards something and then rip the plan apart.” According to Matador, this tragedy occurred after being told last minute that the publisher with whom they had negotiated the rights for their artist, Will Toledo, to sample a portion of The Cars classic “Just What I Needed” was “not authorized to complete the license in the United States, and that Ric Ocasek [lead singer and songwriter for the Cars] preferred that his work not be included.”

In the wake of these events, Toledo, who performs under the name Car Seat Headrest, had a specific grievance that went beyond time, energy, and money: “I don’t think that Ric ever listened to the album or the song, which is the only part that really bothers me…I just hope that if I ever get to the point of being where he is, and a situation like this comes along, that my first reaction would still be, ‘Okay, well, what’s the song?’ I would want to listen to it first and see, artist-to-artist, what’s going on.” According to Toledo he was heartbroken that the conversation was not about the art at all.”

At the core of this story—at least as it has been reported—is the conflict between the old and the new, the past and present.  Here we witness the emergence of creative energy from different periods coming into potential harmony—ready to slingshoot each other into the future—but then ultimately being literally dashed against the rocks—and for what?  The imagined preservation of a Cars’ tune in its pristine form?  For the sake of Ocasek maintaining the right to exercise control over a child (a song) who left home a long, long time ago?

Embedded in this tale of Car Seat Headrest is a metaphor that challenges the way we think about leadership and legacy, and which forces us to confront questions about how the creative past meets the innovative present—both at the level of our individual contributions and in the culture of our organizations. The contention of this piece is that delving a bit deeper into the origins and controversies surrounding sampling in music, as I will do below, will allow us to gain some clarity about how past and present can be most fruitfully woven together, especially in an era in which technology facilitates and demands fast adaptation, making imitation both hard and easy in different ways.

In his innovative TED talk, Mark Ronson—a staunch defender of sampling—describes the origins of sampling some thirty years back when the first digital samplers hit the scene.  It’s worth quoting him at length:

“All of a sudden artists could sample from anything and everything that came before them… and they weren’t sampling these records because they were too lazy to write their own music… They were sampling those records because they heard something in that music that spoke to them, that they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music. They heard it, they wanted to be a part of it and all of a sudden they found themselves in possession of the technology to do so…”

Ronson’s line of thought builds towards a manifesto-like statement on the nature of art and human progress.

“[Today] we take the things that we love and we build on them. When we add something significant and original, we merge our musical journey with that which has come before and we have a chance to be part of the evolution of that music that we love and be linked with it once it becomes something new again.”

When confronted with Ronson’s vision of art—which is also T.S. Eliot’s—we can react in at least two ways:

1) We can make like some oldster from the Cars, recoiling at the thought that our “original” contributions to art, or other creative ventures such as organizational leadership, and technological innovation, are never fully original; we are indebted to countless innovators of the past. Likewise, again like the Cars guy, we can refuse to accept that any contribution we make will ultimately be re-contextualized, re-interpretation, re-imagined endlessly in the future, perhaps obscuring the “originality” of our contribution. This will happen regardless of whether or not we “grant permission.”

2) Or, we can face the fact that all of our creative ventures, and indeed our very legacy, is not the process of creating and protecting notoriety in the future. It is about using our creative energies in present moment, the only moment in which we live, to connect the meaningful things of the past to the meaningful things of future. It is recognizing that all great artists “steal”, as Eliot says, with the intent of making something better. To take this approach to art, to leadership, to legacy is to recognize that we are all linked up together in the practice of the “art of appropriation.” It is to say very clearly, “I appropriate, and what I create will be appropriated a thousand times over.” And it probably also means to come to find joy in speaking these words.

I will close by stating the obvious. When those young samplers of the 80’s and 90’s were doing their thing, it was possible only because they were master listeners to the musical traditions that came before them and that were birthed in their midst. They listened in active ways that allowed them to identify something of themselves in those tracks. They listened in ways that allowed them to knit the past together with the future in their present. This is the kind of listening that is required of all great artists, leaders, and innovators.