What Leaders Can Learn About Innovation from David Bowie

If you spent any time reading his obituaries and tributes, watching his performances and television interviews or listening to his music the past two weeks, it's likely clear to you what a brilliant genius David Bowie was. If you need any additional proof of that statement, watch the videos for his single, Lazarus, or Blackstar, the title song of his last album that was released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death. The level of performance and artistry created by a man with terminal cancer less than a year before he died is astonishing.

As an executive coach and leadership educator, I regularly work with clients who need or want to expand their thinking and approach. To fuel the innovation that is so critical to their long term success, they need to stretch their boundaries. Over the course of his nearly 50 year career, Bowie didn't just stretch boundaries, he moved them. His influence on not just music but film, fashion, theatre, gender and racial equality, and sexual identity have all been well chronicled since his death. He was a true innovator and disruptor. With the introduction of Bowie Bonds, a debt offering collateralized by the revenue stream generated by his recordings, he even established himself as an innovator in finance.

While few of us possess the raw talent of a David Bowie, there are lessons about the practice and application of innovation that all leaders can learn from him. I find them inspiring for my own business and I hope they are for you as well. Here are four of lessons about innovation from David Bowie.

Pay attention to what's bugging you:

What's bugging you? Don't put it in a drawer. Pull it out, pay attention to it and do something to change it. That's what Bowie did when he came up with the iconic character of Ziggy Stardust in 1971. In a 2002 interview on Fresh Air, Bowie answered host Terry Gross when she asked what his thought process was in creating Ziggy:

"Well, I guess the simple one-liner is that myself and my mates... were fed up with denim and the hippies... we were creating the 21st century in 1971. That was the idea."

Bowie didn't ignore what was bugging him about pop culture. He identified the source of his frustration and created the antithesis of the prevailing norm. It proved to be the innovative spark that launched a genre and became a catalyst for changing societal norms.

Be diverse in your sources of inspiration:

A consistent theme in the commentary on Bowie's career is how he constantly kept his music, his image and his life fresh and interesting. He fed his innovative approach to his work and life with rich and diverse sources of inspiration.

In his conversation with Terry Gross about the Ziggy Stardust era and what came later, Bowie shared some of what inspired his creativity:

"things like the kabuki theater in Japan and German expressionist movies and poetry by Baudelaire and... everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix of... what, in fact, rock music was and could become."

True innovation often comes from connecting seemingly disconnected pieces into a new whole. Bowie was a master of this.

Stay restless:

As his career portfolio demonstrates, Bowie refused to be slotted into a style of music, a look, a trend, or a career path. As Jon Pareles recapped in his New York Times obituary, Bowie played the title role in the well received film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was the lead in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man. In 1989, he performed without top billing as a member of another band. He was creatively restless. As he told Terry Gross:

"I really do rather want to move on because I think it's rather a waste of time endlessly singing the same songs every night for a year, and it's just not what I want to do."

Bowie's resistance to standing pat and repeating himself opened up space for a flood of innovation.

Stay current and curious:

Among the many strengths that Bowie brought to his career was his commitment to stay both current and curious. Years ago, he wrote hits for fellow artists like Lou Reed and Roxy Music. In his 50's and 60's he collaborated with younger artists such as Trent Reznor and his band Nine Inch Nails and the Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire. For his last album, Blackstar, he recruited a jazz quartet he had seen in a Greenwich Village club to play with him.

In his conversation with Terry Gross, Bowie acknowledged that "I just can't keep my fingers out of any pies." By staying current and curious, Bowie stayed relevant and his work became timeless.

The common denominator of these innovation lessons from David Bowie is that he paid attention. He paid attention to what was going on internally - what was bugging him and his restlessness - and to what was going on around him - sources of inspiration that kept him current and curious. What are you paying attention to and what impact does that have on your level of innovation?