What drummer Tony Allen teaches us on good leadership

In April 2020, Tony Allen passed away. He lived to the age of 79.

You probably don’t know Tony Allen. When he died, he was one of the best and most extraordinary drummers in the world and the co-inventor of Afrobeat. And are there a few things that even executives can learn from him. Let me tell you.

Tony Allen started his career at the age of 18 in Lagos, Nigeria, where he worked as a technician at a radio station. He taught himself to play the drums using only recordings and newspaper articles. He learned from the masters of jazz like Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk or Art Blakey and combined their sound with highlife and traditional Nigerian music. He never attended college.

Allen played with various bands until Fela Ransom Kuti took notice of him in 1964. “How is it that you’re the only guy in Nigeria who can play like that – jazz and highlife in one?” Allen began playing with Kuti and developing the sound that would later become famous as Afrobeat.

This collaboration produced over 30 albums, but in 1979 Tony Allen left Fela Kuti and forged a new path, integrating more influences from hip-hop, electronica and dub. Projects with his new band followed, as well as with other musicians such as Damon Albarn, or Michael Balzary – the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but also moves first to London, later to Paris.

Most recently, he released albums with with Jeff Mills, a techno DJ from Detroit (Tomorrow comes the Harvest, 2018) and Hugh Masekela (Rejoice, 2020), another legend of jazz and Afrobeat. Shortly after the release, Tony Allen died in Paris.

Allen was more than a brilliant musician; he was a role model with his personality:

– Allen never settled on a once-successful style, but always sought challenges, integrated new styles and started projects with other musicians

– He never pushed himself to the fore, but allowed other (younger) musicians to shine; his genius can only be perceived if you listen carefully

– He never stopped developing, but simply continued learning and experimenting until old age

– He paid tribute to the pioneers who preceded him and on whose work he built (e.g. with his Art Blakey tribute album)

And what can we learn from him?

– Make sure your team shines (not yourself)
– Never stand still, but learn and evolve
– Embrace challenges – what was yesterday is gone now
– Good leadership does not require a master’s degree from an elite university
– Stay relaxed, creative and curious

Although Tony Allen was ‘only’ a musician, he can be a formative figure for many other disciplines as well: creativity, curiosity, experimentation, learning, and last but not least humility – these are qualities I would like to see in leaders today as well.

Are you curious and want to get to know Tony Allen? Then listen to “Welcome to the harvest” with Jeff Mills or “We’ve landed” with Hugh Masekela.


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