There is nothing more difficult or frustrating than leading a bunch of punks and rebels. I was part of the 1980s punk-hardcore crowd, and I know first-hand how hard it is to lead our generation. When you lead people who think they know all the answers, or who think they are outside-the-box thinkers, or people who don’t like to use traditional techniques, you will get some grey hairs.

There are some secrets to leading this type of team and these types of people. A great example of this leadership technique can be found in the style of Butch Vig from Wisconsin.

Butch Vig and Nirvana Begin Their Journey

There was a moment at the end of the 1980s when the hair-metal bands had their locks shorn by a grunge phenomenon out of the Pacific Northwest. Nirvana was the band that did what the other bands weren’t able to do—get a nationwide massive audience. After making a small impact on a small record label, Nirvana embarked on a soon-to-be famous album recording session in Wisconsin. In the Spring of 1990, they chose an up-and-coming, but not well-known producer named Butch Vig.  Butch would become the unlikely co-leader of a groundbreaking project.

After they started to record, Kurt Cobain lost his voice and the band went back out West while he healed. Butch was left waiting to finish the album. In the interim, the band changed out their drummer for Dave Grohl, who took their sound to a new place with his instrument and vocals. The new band of rebels was faced with their first leadership challenge—whether or not to stick with their old record label. They chose to switch to a bigger label that would be able to get their album out nationally.

Three of Butch’s Leadership Techniques for Nirvana

Now, signed with David Geffen Company (DGC) records, Nirvana was faced with another leadership challenge. They chose to accept the request to move to a Los Angeles recording studio, but they wanted to finish the album with Butch Vig, the producer they started it with.

1. Be Patient.

The reason Butch got to continue producing the album with the new Geffen label was because the band wanted him to do it. They liked his style, they trusted him, and they realized he was patient enough to help them achieve the sound they wanted. Leaders that gain the trust of their teams often do so because the teammates trust they are willing to listen to them and adjust to their desires. If you are impatient with creative people, you can easily shut them down.

2. Figure them out.

A leader that can understand how their people think and who they look up to as role models can get teams to do the unthinkable. There was a moment or two during the recording when Butch knew he had to layer on the vocals and instrument tracks to make songs sound better. Kurt was attached to the idea of not layering over the original sounds. Butch was able to use one of Kurt’s inspirations to motivate him to try the technique. Kurt relented from his stand when Butch reminded him that John Lennon also allowed the procedure. If you listen to the album without the layering, you will know how much would have been lost if Butch had not won a few arguments.

3. Know when to let them have their way.

The flip side of using jedi-mind tricks to get your team of rebels to conform to the norm is to let them change you. The hardest song on the album to record was Something in the Way. After three failed attempts in the sound studio, Butch explained that Kurt came into the tiny and loud producer’s space with his guitar and in frustration laid back on the couch and started to play and sing quietly. Kurt wanted it to sound the way he was demonstrating. Butch instantly gave up on the normal process and just grabbed a few microphones and recorded him as he laid on the couch. Then he worked through the technical nightmare of getting the rest of the instruments and vocals to match up with what Kurt had done. Here is a clear moment where Butch knew he needed to deviate from the normal recording method to allow his teammate to get the outcome he needed. It is a hauntingly beautiful song to end the album. And of course, it’s playing on my turntable right now.

The Results of the Butch Vig Technique

All of these techniques allowed Butch and the band to create the album Nevermind. Its hit songs showcased all the talents of the band. The voice. The instruments. The hunger. The creativity. It is difficult for even the most genius of artists to create a perfect album, and it takes a very good producer to keep the project on track. Butch produced a solid 49 minutes and 7 seconds of Nirvana for listeners.

Nevermind was released in September of 1991 and took the world by storm. Hoping to sell 50,000 to 500,000 copies in the first year, it would eventually sell over 30 million copies (to date). Nirvana put grunge firmly in the Top-40 charts and even knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the rock album chart—a once unthinkable feat. Nirvana’s Nevermind changed the lives of all those involved in the project and changed the trajectory of music. The album today ranks in sales with records like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Springsteen’s Born in the USA, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Different Leadership Techniques Needed For Different Generations

It is not easy to lead punks and rebels; ask any of the Sergeants that had to coach and mentor the cohort of soldiers that showed up with a Nevermind CD in 1991. If you follow these three techniques, you might make some breakthroughs and harness your team’s creativity to achieve a temporary moment of bliss. Every generation has its own demands for leaders and managers. Figure it out; and don’t be afraid to act like a co-leader if a Kurt, Chris, and Dave show up in your team. If you handle creative and defiant people correctly, they might help you change the world.

 

Author’s note: The Prime Video classic albums series has a great documentary about the Nirvana Nevermind album that is worth your time if you are leading a challenging group of people. The Nevermind album was recorded at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys CA from May to June 1991.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.