The Best Performers Know How To Lead: Interview with Terry Starbucker

terry starbucker

Whether we realize it or not, each concert we go to teaches us something new about who we were, who we are and who can become. But can going to concerts really teach you how to be a leader? Is there something we can learn about leadership by watching Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, The Who or The Rolling Stone’s perform live in concert?

Those questions came up when I spoke with Terry Starbucker, who has held a variety of operational and executive leadership roles since he began his career as a CPA in 1982. On his blog Ramblings From a Glass Half Full, Terry uses both his passion for music and experiences in business leadership to tell entertaining stories that put a smile on your face and make you think differently about how a love for music can be a vital leadership tool.

Back in April, I had the pleasure of briefly talking with Terry as he told me about his experience during a Yes and Asia concert last year. Then a few weeks later we connected via phone to talk more about how that concert experience was more than just a “nostalgic trip.”

During our chat, he also told me how singing in a high school band helped him to conquer his fears and develop the stage presence of a leader; why he considers the piano to be a great leadership analogy and why you should never limit yourself to just going to rock concerts.

As Terry tells his story, you’ll discover how his love for music and going to concerts has played a vital role in his life, ultimately enabling him to fully realize his leadership skills over the course of his 28-year business career, which includes co-founding SOBCon, an “Elite Business Workshop / Retreat of the social web.”

Live Fix: It was good to meet you at the Social Media Club in Chicago. Ever since that chat I’ve been looking forward to hearing about your experience at the Yes and Asia show last year. So how was the show?

Terry: I’m glad we were able to do this too. There’s actually a little bit of irony in today’s chat, because tonight my friend and I are actually going to see Yes and Peter Frampton at Jones Beach Theater in Long Island.

Do you and your friend usually go to concerts together?

Yeah. He’s the same friend I went with to see Yes and Asia last July. He’s pretty much a Yes fanatic. So when he saw that Yes and Peter Frampton were playing, he asked if I wanted to go, and I said sure.

Those kinds of concerts are a lot fun for me because you have this mental image of the bands that goes back thirty or forty years. They’ve gotten older, but you can tell that they still enjoy playing. It was quite an enjoyable experience.

What’s different from the first time you saw Yes live and when you saw them last year?

Actually, [last year] was the first time I saw Yes Live. But in the ’70s I saw a lot of shows. I grew up in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area and saw almost every major concert tour that came through. I saw bands like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Ted Nugent.

The first concert I ever saw was Bachman-Turner Overdrive in 1974, and if I remember correctly, Thin Lizzy opened for them. That was my first exposure to live music, and from then on I started going to more shows, like KISS, Rush…then going into the ’80s I saw Hall and Oates, John Cougar Mellencamp, Styx, Journey. I’ve pretty much seen them all [laughs].

In the ’90s I didn’t go to a lot of concerts. Then in the 2000s, for whatever reason, I stopped going to concerts—except if some of my favorite artists, like Elton John or Billy Joel, came through town. But I hadn’t been to an actual rock concert for quite some time. So for me, going to see Yes and Asia last year was a very nostalgic experience. But still it was interesting to be in a crowd of middle-aged [fans/people] who [were] all intently appreciative of the artists and what they were doing on stage. It was a concert in the round, so as they were playing the stage was rotating and the band faced you at one time or another during the show. That made the show really intimate.

And you could tell that the people who were there had been listening to the both bands for thirty years, so there was this relationship that the crowd had with the bands. I wasn’t the biggest Yes or Asia fan, but I still had a great time just watching the other fans experience the moment. It was a fun show to go to because it had a different vibe to it, which made it a completely different experience than it would have been thirty or forty years ago.

What was going through your mind during the Yes and Asia show? What do you remember the most about your experience?

It was nostalgic. But I also felt a cozy familiarity with the other fans, too. I felt like I was revisiting some of the memories I have of gazing at and enjoying the blacklight posters of my favorite prog-rock bands I had on my walls when I was growing up.

Like I mentioned, I wasn’t the biggest Yes fan, but for me during that show last year, I got nostalgic about Emerson Lake & Palmer and Rush. And I can remember those emotions going through me during the Yes and Asia show too. It happened almost immediately. First, I thought, “Wow, it’s been thirty years since these guys were in their heyday.” Then I thought it was great that these guys are still doing it, playing live rock and loving it.’

Before the show I had my doubts, because I thought to myself, “Why are they doing this? Why would they risk the chance of being a parody of themselves?’ Why risk not doing justice to the music?“ But I was very surprised that none of those things really happened.

While the show was going on I got more and more appreciative. And I’m not even a huge Yes fan. I was just enjoying the feeling of the audience. It was like this communal experience with a longtime friend. And in this case my longtime friend is my music, and my appreciation for that era of music, and what it meant to me in my life at that time in the ’70s. Music has really helped me in a lot ways; I had a huge record collection, and music has always been the soundtrack to my life.

So as I was standing there in the audience and watching all this go on around me, I was feeling all these emotions pop right up inside me. And like I said, I hadn’t been in a rock concert setting like that in a long time, so it served as a reminder. I walked away from that concert feeling pretty good because it was a nostalgic trip. But it was more than just that.

For me it brought back all the good stuff. It was a chance to reflect and appreciate the artistry of the bands. And back then some of my favorite bands weren’t liked by everyone [laughs]. I remember some of my friends razzing me for liking Rush and obsessing over 2112. So I definitely had a deeper understanding that night, and I had a better sense of empathy for the Yes fans because we were all in the same boat. And if you put your mind in the right place during a show, you can really enjoy it on many different levels.

Many of your blog posts on  Ramblings From a Glass Half Full connect your passion for music with insights you’ve gained leadership. In your post about “Anthems”  you talked about the strong emotional effect of listening to Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” can have on people; and you explain what you learned after watching you and a group of friends singing karaoke to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” in a bar together (video below).

Since we can have very powerful and life-changing “anthem” moments at concerts too, what sort of leadership lessons or insights have you gained from your concert experiences and by watching your favorite bands perform live?

Well, for me it goes back to when I was growing up, because, like most teenagers I wanted to be a rock star. And I was a pretty good air guitarist in my day [laughs]. One of the reasons I picked “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” to write about in that “Anthems” post was because, for me, that song has always been a classic example of a raging rock song that was uncharacteristic for Elton John. I remember the first time I heard that song: the guitar parts, the singing and the screaming and the energy represented in the performance. All those elements still resonate with me and they made me think about the effect that anthems can have on people.

I’ve always looked for ways to duplicate that feeling in life and in leadership, so that Elton John experience, and others I had as teenager, made me want to explore the rock-star experience more.

How did you explore your interest and curiosity in live performance as a teenager? And how did you make the connection between being a rock star and leadership?

I eventually realized that I could sing and carry a tune, so in high school I started to want to get up and sing; and I ended up being lead singer in a band. We didn’t last too long, but we were around enough to allow me to get on stage and experience the feeling of performing and trying to communicate with people in that way.

So ultimately, that’s how I made the connection between live concert performance and leadership. I realized they’re both very similar because you have to be able to have the courage, moxie, and get over your fear to be able to go up in front of people. And performing music live was a great segue for me into my career in leadership and business.

And once I started singing and getting used to opening my mouth in that band in high school, I really didn’t have a hard time doing it at all. It was kind of scary at first, but it wasn’t too difficult. So as I was going through my twenties, and starting my career in business and learning to develop my leadership talents, I gradually became more comfortable and the fears I had subsided. And I know that being in that band and getting used to belting out songs in front of an audience was really helpful for me.

On your blog, you’ve written about various moments where you’ve experimented with various elements of live performance in a business environment. How have you transformed some of your most memorable live music experiences into leadership lessons or techniques?

I think a lot of my desire to blend my love for music performance with leadership comes from me wanting to be a rock star, because I never did learn how to play the guitar. So naturally over the years, I’ve mixed everything together. In posts Leadership: The Musical, I write about how I break out in song during a meeting, and use elements of music performance for a motivational technique.

Over the years, my leadership persona sometimes was that I would do something very unexpected. And that’s because the connection between my love for music, live performance and leadership is very strong. I think being a leader in a business environment is a lot like being a lead singer in a band. You have to be able to go out and project and connect with an audience. There’s a lot of responsibility when you’re a lead singer in a band and the same goes for when your leading a team of people at a company.

Was there any particular concert performance by an artist that influenced your leadership style? Or do any artists stand out as more inspiring when it comes to borrowing or adapting their onstage persona? For example, did you say to yourself at the concert or afterward, “Hey, I like the way Elton John did this during the show, so I’m going to adapt that for my leadership style.”

That’s an interesting question. I would say I probably picked up a lot from everybody. Obviously, Elton John has been a huge influence on me, because he was a guy who really pushed boundaries and decided to be more flamboyant onstage. I don’t remember where I read it exactly but remember I learning that by Elton John performing like he did and still does, helped him to conquer some of his own demons.

I’ve also picked up elements from the more rocker-type guys like Roger Daltrey of the Who, and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin. Guys like them, who were clearly in command of the stage, really had a profound impact on me. All those types of guys knew how to work a crowd and play off the emotions of the audience. And I learned a lot by studying them, because being able to do all those things during a live show is a great skill. Not everybody can do that. And you can really see [it] come through when the great speechmakers talk in front of an audience.

For example, at SOBCon this past May, Steve Farber spoke about leadership in business. I really look up to him a lot. He’s been doing leadership consulting for many years. Steve’s style reminds of a rock star, in the way he walks around among the audience and changes his vocal inflections and makes connections with the audience as he speaks, which is something all the great rock stars do.

Bruce Springsteen is another great example. When he’s onstage and he starts to talk, you can hear a pin drop, because of the command he has over the crowd. Have you ever been to a Springsteen concert?

No. I’ve only seen him perform on TV. But I have several friends who have told me how powerful and life-changing his concerts are. I hope to see him eventually.

I hope you do, because he really is amazing. I’ve learned many things from watching Springsteen perform, too. Mick Jagger is another guy who is high on my list of influences. He’s a master of working the audience, and when you’re in the crowd you can really feel it. I remember when I saw him at the Los Angeles Coliseum; I was in the eighth row, and marveled at every aspect of his performance. I saw the Rolling Stones in Dallas, and I remember how they were one of the first bands to use the stage extensions to come out into the crowd. [Watching] him walk along the stage extension, you could see even more how much in control he was of timing and execution of each moment during the show.

I guess if I put all these guys into a hat and asked myself who influenced me more, I would say I picked up [elements] from all of them. There’s a lot to be learned from people who can connect with an audience. On one hand, you can appreciate the musicality of the band, and the artistry and the performance, and that’s all fascinating as well. But on the other hand, you can see how the best performers truly capture an audience.

I’ve read that many great performers and bands you’ve mentioned weren’t born with these amazing live performance abilities. They had to develop them over time and by playing hundreds of shows. What parallels or similarities do you see between the development of your own leadership skills and the development of a band’s live show?

That’s another good question. I find myself going on twenty-eight years now since I started my leadership and business career. So in some ways I think I’m in the same position as a rock star who’s been at it for thirty years. We’ve both been doing it for so long that we’ve developed our patterns, skills, and conduct, and many of the motions have become natural and comfortable. And right now, I think I’ve turned outward, and in particular with SOBCon and my blog, I’ve tried to start to share that knowledge, which I wouldn’t have had to do thirty years ago because I was just learning myself. I think it’s progressed now to a point where I can turn to younger folks or my contemporaries and share what I’ve learned.

And to bring our discussion here full circle, I can bring what I’ve learned over the course of my career to my team and use my knowledge to lead them and grow them into leaders, too. Many of the people on my team at work have been together for years, just like those rock stars we watch onstage, so we as a business team do, from time to time, have our own nostalgic trip.

And like those rock stars who’ve been playing live together for years, the people on my team know each other’s parts, and we all know each other so well that we can communicate on a deep level — many times without even talking. We can just look at each other, like artists do onstage, and know exactly what note to play, or how to act in a meeting, or how to solve a problem. Whether you’re a business team or a band playing live, having that connection and innate and developed familiarity is a very comfortable and confident feeling that lets you know that everything is going to be okay.

I was thrown into a leadership role at a young age when I was 28, and I had to learn really fast. Those experiences I had inspired me to write my ebook Half-Full and in it I mention how there are four or five things I wish I’d known back then.

And I would think that my leadership skills and what I’ve learned in leadership is like my musical instruments. Meaning, I’ve become comfortable with them to the point where I can confidently teach and share my experiences with others on my blog and during SOBCon.

Since you consider your leadership skills to be like musical instruments, if you were to pick one instrument and use it as metaphor or an analogy for developing leadership skills, what instrument would you pick and why?

Well, I guess I would pick the piano. I’m attracted to the piano because of its versatility. I think it’s a great instrument for communicating emotional inflections. I love how piano players can manipulate the keys and pedals, and how they go from the high to low notes and play harder or faster, and make you feel all sorts of things. That’s why I think it’s one of the best instruments for connecting with and influencing human emotion.

And when you think about it, the piano has been a hard instrument to translate to rock, because it was always awkward to put a big piano onstage. And that’s always been the challenge. How do you take a subtle instruments like the piano, which has all the nuances and subtleties, and translate it to something like rock?

I think that’s a great leadership analogy, because there are all these little tools or little piano keys you can play, but ultimately you have to translate your leadership talents and skills into a grander stage, which would be either your company or your life goals and objectives.

So you have to take that “instrument” and play it in a way that’s unique and true to your style, but play it in a way still fits the needs of your audiences. For example, if your audience is expecting to hear classical, you’d better be able to play a little Chopin or Bach, so that they’ll respond or do what you want them to do. But if you’re playing to an audience that wants jazz, honky-tonk or rock, you can play that, too.

And since a piano is versatile, it lets you to play to all those audiences and styles. I think that’s why the piano related the best to the concept of management for me. Again, I’ve always marveled at how piano artists like Billy Joel and Elton John command an audience, because they’re not guitarists who can carry their instruments around with them onstage. With a piano you’re sort of handicapped, and have to really rely on other skills and talents to connect with the audience.

The piano has always been a favorite of mine, too, mainly because of how differently it’s been used in rock by guys like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was explosive and liberating on many levels to watch them play live in the way they did back then. And I would imagine that on some level other piano artists in rock have been inspired by watching Richard and Lewis play. It’s pretty cool to think how everyone has been influenced by each other.

It really is! If your mind is open, it’s amazing what you can pick up and apply to other areas of your life. I love all kinds of music. And I’ve learned that there all types of things to appreciate in the music and the players who make the music and what they put into it, and how they ultimately translate the music to the stage. Again, if your mind is open and you want to take all that in and learn from it, there’s much more than what meets the eye, or ear.

Music is so important because of the way it connects with your brain and the emotions in your brain, which is what I talk about in that Anthem’s post. We can learn something about ourselves by listening to [Bon Jovi’s arena-rock anthem] “Livin’ On Prayer” [laughs]. You might not think so, but you if you do take the time to understand how that song impacts our minds and emotions you really can get much more out of listening to music than most people do.

What bands, past or present, are on your wish list to see live? Are there any concert venues you’d like to see a show in that you haven’t yet?

The Beatles — they’ve been a big influence; the Who in their heyday; Ryan Adams has been one I’ve enjoyed a lot lately so I’d like to see him live eventually. For the most part, I’ve checked the box on most of the bands I’ve wanted to see, and I’m lucky to have done so.

I’ve always love to experience all types of music. I’ve been to jazz shows. I’ve been to the opera.Going to the opera puts live music in a whole new light, and it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their life. Some people get turned off by certain genres or experiences, but opera has a lot more similarities to live rock and roll than most people realize. One thing I’ve always wanted to do was to go to a club-type of cabaret show to watch a big band or a swing band. Oh, and I would have loved to see Frank Sinatra live. I would also like to get to more club shows. I’ve always been to bigger arena shows, but I haven’t had the chance to see many bands in a more intimate setting, like a smaller club.

What bands or concert experiences have surprised you the most?

Back in 1980 — and this might really date me [laughs] — my friend and I went to see [future quintuple-Grammy winner]Christopher Cross at a bar when he was just breaking. It was a great experience because we got to see him right before he became a big star.

It really is special to see a show like that. And the next time you’re in Chicago we have to check out a show at one of the smaller club venues, like Metro or Schubas.

Thanks, Terry, for taking the time to share your concert experiences and thoughts on leadership!

You’re welcome. I appreciate the opportunity to reminisce a bit and talk about music. I really enjoyed it. Thanks!

Get info on the next SOBCon event in Colorado this September and check out more of Terry’s writings on leadership and music at Ramblings From a Glass Half Full.

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