We can work it out: lessons from The Beatles on managing divergent personalities

The creative and conflicted relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney provides an important lesson for business leaders in recognizing the complementary value of different personality types.

Leadership managing divergent personalities The Beatles
“If the greatest band in the world could break up at their creative peak, what lessons can we gather that might bond together other groups of divergent personalities who share a common mission?” Photo: Dom Slike/Alamy.

Amidst the personality conflicts and debates about their future, The Beatles still proved they could have raucous fun.

In the music business, “Who’s your favourite Beatle?” is a surefire cocktail party conversation starter. In light of the revelatory new documentary Get Back, perhaps the more interesting question for creatives and entrepreneurs is: “Which Beatle do you most resemble?”

While watching intimate footage of John Lennon and Paul McCartney collaborating during rehearsal and recording sessions in January 1969, I found myself examining my own traits when I’ve navigated creative projects, and, in turn I asked myself a simple question: Am I John or Paul?

My purpose in this inquiry isn’t to debate historical details about the band’s eventual breakup, freshly chronicled in director Peter Jackson’s seven-hour epic about the making of the Let it Be album. Rather, it is to look at each member as an archetype whose personality might provide insights into our own challenges when conflicts arise between creative and business professionals. If the greatest band in the world could break up at their creative peak, what lessons can we gather that might bring together other groups of divergent personalities who share a common mission — be it creative, entrepreneurial or otherwise?

The definition of an archetype is: “A very typical example of a certain person or thing.” The Get Back documentary paints the most detailed personality picture of The Beatles ever, and, in doing so, shows how an understanding of two creative archetypes can provide useful guidance, especially for cofounders and business partners.

Creative Foils

John and Paul were perfect creative foils as the Beatles’ two principal songwriters and leaders. In this later Beatles era, Paul’s songwriting embraced the pop mainstream, with its majestic melodies and concrete lyrics (e.g. “The Long And Winding Road”). John’s songwriting tended away from the mainstream while deftly remaining accessible, with its unique melodic structures and abstract lyrics (e.g. “Across the Universe”).

Think of it this way — a Paul song was written to be liked, while a John song challenged you to like it. My supposition, confirmed by the Get Back documentary, is that these songwriting characteristics stemmed from their personality archetypes.

Paul — originally dubbed “the cute Beatle” — wants to be liked. He’s the diplomat. He seeks approval and focuses on progress. He worries about schedules, deadlines and completion. In rehearsal, he preaches discipline. He arrives on time. He attempts to set a vision, albeit sometimes unclear even in his own mind. He hangs on tight, both literally and metaphorically, trying to keep the machine working.

John — originally dubbed “the smart Beatle” — challenges you to like him. He’s committed in a different way. He likes to explore, keeps his options open and doesn’t worry much about the clock. As a wealthy rock star in the late 60s, the writer of “Revolution” may not truly be a revolutionary, but he certainly seems to care less about popularity. He visibly asserts his individuality and shows irreverence toward authority. With late arrivals to rehearsal and less rigid discipline, he doesn’t try to preordain outcomes. He embodies indelible charm and wisdom, followed by apparent disdain.

From Band to Boardroom

Paul is obsessed with convergence (decisions, deliverables) while John gravitates toward divergence (explorations, options). Author David Perell has written about this concept as a helpful colloquial abstraction that he calls beer mode (divergence) versus coffee mode (convergence).

“Beer mode is a state of unfocused play where you discover new ideas,” says Perell. “In contrast, coffee mode is a state of focus where you work toward a specific outcome.”

Paul is constantly in coffee mode whereas John is frequently in beer mode.

While there are notable exceptions (witness the incredible sequence when Paul is beginning to write what would become the song “Get Back” in front of a disinterested George Harrison and Ringo Starr), herein lies a key source of conflict. As dual leaders, Paul and John’s personalities are complementary in the good times, but susceptible to disagreement during pressurized times. The core lesson of what’s sometimes missing is conscious empathy toward each other, and recognition of the complementary value of their different archetypes.

Paul’s obsession with progress is justified, based on the band’s lofty goal of writing and recording the Let it Be album within one month, and filming a live performance to boot. The positive side of his focus on convergence is that he ensures things get done — an essential personality trait amid the vagaries of the creative process. The negative side is that he sometimes becomes an irritant to his partners, a quasi taskmaster. Just the personality John reacts against.

John’s more disengaged, laissez-faire attitude is justified based on the importance of a relaxed flow state in creative endeavours, when progress and morale can’t be reduced to lists of to-do’s. Creating new things from thin air — be it songs or transformative business ideas — requires space, reflection and even serendipity. The positive side of John’s orientation toward divergence is that he arrives at incredibly unique creative places, and seems to embody a deep conviction that things will work out in the end — also an essential ingredient in any amorphous creative process. The negative side is that he makes others feel like he doesn’t care as much, asserting his individuality to remind Paul he has other priorities besides the Beatles.

Applying the John/Paul Lens

Amid these personality conflicts and debates about their future, the Beatles still proved they could have raucous fun. Perhaps the most surprising element of Get Back for Beatles historians is how much laughter and camaraderie was still shared by the band members, even on the precipice of breaking up. There’s a whole other lesson here.

The John and Paul archetypes are common and instructive. Although simplified for this short examination, you likely recognize elements of their personalities in yourself and others. This lens can explain why cofounders with an incredible track record might no longer see eye to eye on operational questions.

So whether you’re facing friction in a band or a boardroom, take solace that the source of your angst might be a very human collaborator who shares traits with one of the greatest rock stars of all time. And then ask yourself what archetype you represent in the conflicted process — are you John or Paul?

Piers Henwood is a Grammy and Juno-nominated manager and musician. Past and present clients include Bedouin Soundclash, Tegan and Sara, Luca Fogale, The Librarian and his own bands Astrocolor and Jets Overhead.