Handling Conflict: Lessons from the Beatles
Given my demographic, it’s no surprise that I was enchanted with Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary, Get Back. I remember watching the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles made their splash in the US. Meet the Beatles was my very first album, their live concert at Dodger Stadium left me with laryngitis. In the letter I wrote to the mayor of Whittier (my hometown), I pleaded that he give the Beatles the key to the city. I received a nay. To say I was a rabid fan might be understating it.
If you haven’t seen Get Back, it’s a three-part documentary about making the album Let It Be. It was a period of time that foreshadowed the band’s end. The 1970’s film Let It Be, underscored divisions in the group but while Get Back covers similar terrain, this latest effort provides context and a fuller picture. What I came away with was that these young men loved playing music together and were astonishingly mature given the celebrity and wealth they had attained when they were barely out of adolescence.
As an organizational development consultant, I was intrigued by their group dynamics under intense pressure. Brian Epstein (their manager since 1961) had recently died. He’d been the discipline and they sorely missed his influence. John was newly in love with Yoko Ono and had become an emotionally (and sometimes physically) absent leader. They were under the gun to create fourteen songs for the album and prepare for their first live concert in two years—all in three weeks’ time (which ended up being four). They were hounded by promoters for a decision about a concert venue that none of the Fab Four seemed excited about. All the while, they were being filmed for a TV special so every cigarette, look, guitar lick, drum roll, and conversation was documented.
When we join them in 1969, the old men of the group were John and Ringo both age 29. Paul was 27 and George was 25. The band members were growing up physically and musically. By then, each was engaged in projects beyond the Beatles. John, Paul and George had been together since they were teens. We don’t know how they’d dealt with previous conflicts but might assume they were like brothers, used to squabbling, making up, then getting on with composing and playing music.
In the film, we see George walk out saying, “I quit,” in his quiet way. Ringo, the most amiable of the four, looks pained by disagreement among his “mates” and disappears into his drum set. The Beatles have two meetings to entreat George to return—and he does.
They are surprisingly sophisticated about group dynamics and leadership. Here’s what I saw:
No one raised a voice, nor did they swear at each other. This alone makes them paragons compared to what’s considered normal today.
Paul made it clear to John (in a private conversation) that he had temporarily stepped in as leader because John left a vacuum and they needed direction—but it was still John’s band. John appeared surprised by the feedback, but he listened (without argument) and resumed his pivotal role.
John and Paul understood that they were numbers one and two in the hierarchy. They acknowledged culpability for George’s dissatisfaction with his lower status and lack of artistic license.
The band members cared about each other. While the world was throwing shade on Yoko, the band members didn’t. Nor did they criticize George about the Hare Krishnas who were camped at his house and drifted onto the set. There may have been a bit of eyerolling about both of these issues, but there were only brief references, no gossip or backstabbing.
Each time they returned to making music, they were ON IT. It was clear they loved playing together. During dead time when nothing was being rehearsed or recorded, or after an awkward conversation, they would jump into playing their earlier songs or covers. They goofed around with each other’s instruments and lightened the mood. Making music was their purpose and what bonded them.
Moving to Apple Studios helped to break the tension. They were able to start again with the project.
The addition of keyboardist Billy Preston gave the band a boost.
Here are lessons that might apply to you and your team:
The Beatles and Billy Preston delivered the now-infamous live concert on Apple Studios’ rooftop. They played a short set while London Bobbies tried to shut them down because of noise complaints. (When I met a man who had been standing on Abby Road and heard the live concert, I was giddy!). In the end, the album was recorded using a mix of concert tracks and studio work. The TV special was never made. We know the band broke up over the next year. But when their backs were against the wall in 1969 with time pressures and a host of distractions, they dealt with their conflicts and did what they needed to do—they made music.
Get Back gave me new respect for the young men who comprised the Beatles. Watching them underscored that leadership and the teamwork isn’t tied to age. The ability to navigate through conflict to accomplish a project is not a skill reserved for white collar professions. I don’t know about you, but I’ve witnessed people in corporate meetings who demonstrated far worse behavior than anything documented in the film. Human dynamics (including conflict) occur with all groups working toward a common purpose. The thing is how we deal with it. Perhaps we can take a lesson from the Beatles.