Photo credit: Takahiro Kyono | Flickr
A few years back, I performed a tribute to Leonard Cohen at The Edinburgh Festival. As a result, I became fascinated by the man behind many famous sombre songs.
In common with other poets who set their work to music such as Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Cohen’s work required a degree of attention that transcended the MTV age. He was unafraid to deal with life’s darker subjects such as war, hate, depression, sex, religion and rock ‘n’ roll.
What then should we learn at the passing of this giant of poetry and music?
Cohen is perhaps noted more for his poetry than his music. Indeed, he was first and foremost a poet, only taking to music when he was 33 years old.
His approach to creativity in his writing was often informed by his reclusive nature, having once bought a house on the Greek island of Hydra. He was also ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1996, taking on the name ‘Jikan’, which means silence.
In the 1960s, Cohen was on the fringe of Andy Warhol’s fashionable Factory crowd, but never in the headlights of the movement; as someone who was probably an intuitive introvert with respect to his creativity.
I discuss five approaches to creativity in the book Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise:
Creativity cannot be controlled and is a matter of forces outside the individual.
- Pure luck
One has to wait for luck to arrive, another passive view of the creative process.
- Planned luck
One can increase the probability of purposeful creativity through careful preparation and planning.
- Hard work
Creativity is simply a matter of perspiration rather than inspiration.
We can learn methods that replicate what naturally-creative people do.
Cohen is a great example of someone with an unconscious competence for creativity in songwriting. This is typical of some artists who either shun formal methods or perhaps are unaware of the methods they use naturally as part of their genius.
Cohen’s quote on songwriting seems to conform to the ‘divinity’ and ‘pure luck’ perspective of the creative muse:
“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.”
“[My writing process is] like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.”
The idea that divinity or pure luck is needed for creativity is a very attractive idea for artists, but is not so easy to transfer into the world of business. Imagine having to wait for 20 years for your creativity to ‘get in the mood’!
In my work as a creativity consultant, I’m mostly interested in improving the probability of purposeful creativity and providing people with explicit methods that help increase the probability and purposefulness of their creativity.
Beautiful as it is, Cohen’s approach is the work of a master craftsman. It offers a deep insight into how the mind of a solo introvert, creative person works and mirrors my own approach when writing books and music, although I have yet to retreat to a monastery to pursue my creative work.
Cohen also had a real grip on leadership and authenticity, which he summed up in his own words, the words from Lou Reed, and a story attributed to Gandhi:
“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.” – Leonard Cohen
“I do me better than anyone else.” – Lou Reed
“A mother took her young boy to meet Gandhi, who was the boy’s idol. The boy had become obsessed with eating sugar and nothing she did would change the habit. Gandhi listened to the woman carefully and replied: ‘Please come back after two weeks. I will talk to your son.’ On meeting the boy again, Gandhi said: ‘Boy, you should stop eating sugar. It is not good for your health.’ The woman was confused and asked Gandhi why he did not tell him this two weeks ago. Gandhi smiled and whispered: ‘I had to give up sugar myself first.’”
Cohen formed deep bonds of friendship with people – another hallmark of his connectivity as a leader in his field.
When talking about Jennifer Warnes (singer, songwriter and a long-time collaborator of Cohen), Cohen said that she sang backup for his 1980 tour, even though her career at the time was in better shape than his. “So this is a real friend”, he said, “Someone who, in the face of great derision, has always supported me”.
In 2004, Warnes wrote how Cohen encouraged her to show authenticity when she felt she couldn’t sing at an upcoming concert, having just lost her mother and still grieving:
“Absolutely do not cancel [the concert]. Show up and let the grief inform your throat. Remember Jenny, everyone has a mother, and audiences love the truth.”
On a side note, I personally had the great fortune of hearing a rendition of one of Cohen’s songs when my friend Jordan Gray, star of The Voice UK, performed Hallelujah at one of my showcase event at Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Lounge. It is a sublime offering and Gray named her album after a line from the song The Baffled King.
Cohen offers us deep insights into the creative process and the question of being your authentic self. Here is a song he performed with Julie Felix (although Judy Collins was the first to perform Cohen’s songs back in 1967), which inspired the title of this post: Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye…
Watch the video, and enjoy the serenading vocals of the song:
Leonard Cohen, rest in peace.