The View

Showmen Cohen and Bowie offered the corporate world lessons in quality, integrity, reinvention, staying power, and leadership

The deaths this year of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, in a business context

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 2:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 1:59pm

The recent death of Leonard Cohen, coming in the same year as that of David Bowie, is a real blow but maybe some solace is to be had by knowing that their lives provide some telling lessons for the world of business.

I am not suggesting that because they made a lot of money there is something to be learned from this, that’s not the point, not least because Cohen claimed that his manager made off with some US$5 million of his earnings, suggesting that he probably should have kept a closer eye on the books.

So, the lessons to be learned lie elsewhere. Perhaps the crucial one is that both Cohen and Bowie had amazing lasting power in the ephemeral world of popular music because of the sheer quality of their work.

Quality does out; this is something that also greatly matters in the world of business where trends come and go but the survivors are invariably those marked out by the quality of their goods and services. And this matters above pricing, smart marketing or more or less anything else.

Bowie, in particular, also demonstrated extraordinary powers of reinvention. His restless mind, curiosity and astonishing versatility took him to new places and brought existing and new fans with him.

Cohen and Bowie had amazing lasting power in the ephemeral world of popular music because of the sheer quality of their work

Leonard Cohen, the brilliant songwriter and poet, with a less than classic singing voice, reinvented himself to a lesser degree but embraced change. Most importantly neither of them changed for the sake of change or indeed in pursuit of changing musical fashions.

Lesser figures in the music world reinvent themselves with new clothes and image makeovers while essentially remaining the same. This also happens in the world of commerce. But great companies understand that change means change of substance, they don’t have to be pioneers of change but must know how to adapt.

The auto business exemplifies this thought time and again as those who have survived the turmoil of this industry have done so not by being one step ahead of their rivals but by developing new automobiles that meet contemporary demands.

Japanese companies are standouts here even though no one has ever accused Japan’s auto industry of being cutting edge in terms of car design but they have devoted time to getting the production process right and are really innovative at the less flashy, production end of the business.

It is hard to know whether Bowie and Cohen had great antennae for picking up on what the public wanted or whether they simply led from the front and created the demand for their type of music.

This chicken and egg-type question is often asked in business and the answer is that it really doesn’t matter. Some companies are really good at getting ahead of the game, Apple would be an example here, while others bide their time for a while, survey the lie of the land and then come out with products that really the fit the bill.

They probably will not like this comparison over at Samsung headquarters but it is fair to say that it tends to fall into the latter category and despite its current smartphone woes, has a solid record for picking up on consumer demand and devising products to meet it.

Bowie and Cohen were also, of course, showmen, well, Bowie much more than Cohen but if you ever had the privilege to attend one of Leonard Cohen’s understated concerts you are unlikely to have forgotten the experience because he had amazing stage presence.

Companies that do really well also have something of the showman in their DNA; this does not mean going with the kind of bling and hype that many companies favour but it does entail an ability to put on some kind of show.

A Hong Kong-based company I really admire is the century old sauce maker Amoy, which knows when to make a bit of noise, spends time making its packaging look good, has developed a strong reputation for consistency and quality and is not averse to a bit of showmanship when required.

Its history also reflects Hong Kong’s internationalisation, beginning as a modest soya sauce and dairy products company in Xiamen, before moving to Hong Kong after World War II. It has since had American, French and now Japanese owners, all of whom have respected the integrity of the brand and been sensible enough not to impose their image on it.

Integrity is something that Bowie and Cohen had in spades, they also knew that chasing after the latest trends and trying to make themselves something other than what they were would do them no good. Lamentably they have now gone, but they will continue inspiring for some time to come. Isn’t that what great companies also do?