The Rolling Stones just started their new world tour in St. Louis, Missouri, but they’re no longer the Stones of old. A few weeks back, the great Charlie Watts, the band’s iconic drummer for over 50 years, passed away. Since then, a lot has been written about him and his career. Yet one aspect of his legacy has remained unsung. And it’s precisely this aspect that, I believe, needs to be highlighted if we’re to truly honor his memory — and learn an important lesson for our organizations.
Born in London during the Blitz — Germany’s bombing campaign during World War II — Watts grew up in a working-class household and later trained as a graphic designer. Yet jazz and rhythm & blues were his passions from a young age, as he devoured the work of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. He learned drums after getting frustrated with the banjo and, during the Swinging Sixties, as London’s clubs and youth awakened after years of postwar reconstruction, the time for Watts to shine had come.
Watts was an elegant, quiet, and meticulous musician, yet he would soon end up becoming the central pillar of history’s most irreverent rock band. And that’s because his talents went beyond musicianship. He was the glue holding the band together and keeping his mates’ outsized egos in check, allowing Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and the bombastic Brian Jones (who would continually vie for the group’s leadership until his departure in 1969) to all push in the same direction and eventually sell 200 million records.
As stylist Rochelle White put it, Watts was the “quintessential English gentleman.” Everything from his manners to his wardrobe was at odds with his bandmates’ aesthetic. Indeed, whether on stage or out of it, he’d always walk around in custom suits by London’s finest Savile Row tailors. “I always felt totally out of place with the Rolling Stones,” he told GQ in 2012. “I have a very old-fashioned and traditional mode of dress.”
His intimate life was as restrained and traditional as his dressing style. He married Shirley Shepherd in 1964 and would remain by her side until his recent death. Asked by NME about this small miracle — at least, in the context of rock music —, the drummer replied, “I’m not really a rockstar. I don’t have all the trappings of that.” He also tended to skirt the public eye. “I’ve never been interested in doing interviews or being seen. I love it and I do interviews because I want people to come and see the band. The Rolling Stones exist because people come to the shows,” he explained.
One of the reasons I keep thinking about Charlie Watts is this apparent mismatch between his rockstar status and the quiet, measured way in which he carried himself. If so many people today believe the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock band of all time, it’s thanks to three key qualities that Charlie Watts embodied more than anyone else.
Watts didn’t just manage to keep the band together for over five decades: he also helped his mates defy and reinvent themselves again and again. (And all that, during one of the most tumultuous eras in human history!) You can love or hate the Stones, but you can’t deny their influence or their capacity for reinvention with every album. From Aftermath (1966) to Sticky Fingers (1971), Some Girls (1978), Voodoo Lounge (1994), and Blue & Lonesome (2016), they’ve never stopped evolving and innovating. In fact, Blue & Lonesome, their 23rd studio album in Britain (and 25th in the United States), shot up to #1 on the British charts. Keep in mind that, by then, the average age of the four Stones was around 70. I can’t think of many — if any — teams that have achieved such longevity.
Weeks before passing away, the 80-year-old Watts publicly apologized for jeopardizing the band’s impending tour and personally announced his temporary replacement, so fans wouldn’t be kept waiting. “After all the fans’ suffering caused by COVID, I really do not want the many Rolling Stones fans who have been holding tickets for this tour to be disappointed by another postponement or cancellation. I have therefore asked my great friend Steve Jordan to stand in for me,” he announced in a press release. After half a century at the drums, he could have asked his bandmates and fans to wait. But he prioritized the group’s wellbeing (and that of their followers or “clients”) and stepped aside.
As I mentioned above, Watts was widely known as the glue that kept the Stones together during their creative and innovative journey. But he wasn’t just a soft-spoken, pacifying mediator. Although he had a calm personality, Watts could put people in their place when he needed to. His verbal sparring with Mick Jagger is the stuff of legends. (And when the situation called for it, he also had a famous right hook at his disposal, as Mick himself discovered on one memorable occasion!) Yet Watts also knew how to take a step back, reconsider, and reinforce the ties that bound the group together for a near-biblical amount of time.
For all these reasons, organizational leaders would do well to learn from this iconic drummer and unassuming band leader. In particular, they should recognize and support those like Charlie Watts in their organizations. Because every team has its very own Charlie Watts. The problem is that, sometimes, they’re overshadowed by more visible, attention-grabbing star players. Yet teams with larger-than-life stars are precisely the ones that need — and should empower — those like Charlie Watts. Otherwise, who’ll keep the star players together? Who’ll make sure the team’s performance isn’t affected by the emotions and egos of its leaders?
The Rolling Stones knew this when they sought Watts out. In his own biography, Life (2010), Keith Richards admits that, in order to woo the drummer, the band spent days saving on meals so they could afford him. Watts had a lifestyle that was far removed from the uncertainty of rock and roll. To convince him to join the Rolling Stones, the band would have to make him a monetary offer he couldn’t refuse. They did — and Watts returned the favor tenfold. In our organizations, this process should be easier. After all, we probably already have someone like Charlie Watts among us. We just have to seek them out and give them room to grow.
By Alberto Bethke, Co-Founder and CEO of OLIVIA.