What David Bowie’s Career Teaches Us About Strategy

David Bowie recently succumbed to an 18-month battle with cancer.

It’s interesting. Bowie has been famous my entire life, but I didn’t truly understand his brilliance until he was gone.

I guess that’s the fate of many artists.

I recently invested time reading about Bowie’s career. It’s clear that his loss leaves a hole in the fabric of the entertainment industry.

What struck me is how his choices align with what the best thinkers say about organizational strategy. Perhaps it was intuition, studied decisions, or advice from others that informed his career. Whatever the source, Bowie’s career moves were smart moves.

You may think that trying to connect my world of teaching and consulting to David Bowie’s career is too big a leap. Stick with me for a moment.

I invite you to consider three observations of Bowie’s work and how they relate to organizational strategy.  To support the connection, quotes are included Harvard Business School’s professor of strategy, Michael Porter.

As you read each observation, take a moment to reflect on the questions I pose  to see if there is room for strategic improvement in your organization.

1.  Choose to Be Different

“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”                                                               – Michael Porter

Strategy is not about following everyone else; it’s about making choices and charting your own course.

David Bowie wasn’t a reincarnation of other musicians.

He was different.

He dressed different.

He acted different.

He experimented with different genres.

He went against convention.

He even declined the honor of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000 and a knighthood in 2003.

What about you and your organization?

  • Are you following everyone else’s path or charting your own course?
  • What is the last BIG strategic move you said ‘yes’ to? Which one did you say ‘no’ to?
  • What choice are you facing today? What is the long-term payoff if you make that choice?


2.  Embrace and Create Change

 “Change brings opportunities. On the other hand, change can be confusing.”                      – Michael Porter

Bowie was more than a musician; he was theater. He was constantly changing. At times, his changes confused people. Many didn’t understand his clothing, make-up, or on-stage (and off-stage) antics.

He emerged in the late 1960s and within a few years, found fame (ChangesLife on MarsSpace Oddity (Major Tom)). He invented the persona Ziggy Stardust (Starmanand became a pioneer of glam rock. After two years as Ziggy, Bowie abruptly announced the character’s retirement.

He then embraced soul and funk and appeared as the Thin White Duke (Rebel Rebel and All the Young Dudes). He later changed direction to the Berlin era (Wild is the Wind and Sound & Vision), followed by the pop era (Let’s Dance and China Girl), and then an electronic period (I’m Afraid of Americans).

He added acting, directing, painting, and fashion to his artistic endeavors. Like all of us, Bowie had his ups and downs, but he was always changing and moving forward. In fact, his last album was released on his 69th birthday – just two days before he died.

What about you and your organization?

  • Do you  seek out change? Or, have things become too comfortable?
  • When was the last time you reinvented yourself? Your organization?
  • What is the next step in your and your organization’s evolution? When will you take that step?


3.  Collaborate Well

“I’m really puzzled by why people in societies find it difficult to work collaboratively together with other people in societies.”                                                                 – Michael Porter

In speaking of Bowie’s career, Jeremy Allen of NME explained that “like all the great performers whose longevity has been built on reinvention, Bowie has a canny knack of knowing who best to work with at the right time.”

Bowie didn’t just collaborate with other performers, he excelled at it. Here are a few examples:

What about your and your organization?

  • Who are you currently collaborating with?
  • Who should you be collaborating with? Who should you move away from?
  • Do you collaborate with those who are different from you? Or, are you consumed by the mediocrity of sameness?

All the best- Patrick

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Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University, teaching Corporate Strategy and Managerial Studies courses, and a leadership and strategy consultant. As a global management consultant, Patrick works with executives and teams throughout the United States, Canada, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Great Britain, Aruba, Iceland, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Guam. Patrick has more than 20-years of leadership and project-management experience. He began his career as an officer in the United States Army, where he completed a number of the military’s most challenging leadership-development courses including airborne, ranger, and infantry officer schools, and he held leadership positions such as infantry platoon leader and company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division.