Bring the Funk: Five Life Lessons from Bootsy Collins

You might not guess looking at me, but my favorite genre of music is funk.  My favorite musical artist (by a longshot) is Prince*, but my favorite genre is funk.  There’s just something about a funky groove, with a deep pocket, then gets your head bobbing.

Fans of funk also recognize that funk is a state of mind, and that there are life lessons to be found in the lyrics, the music, and the musicians.  One elder statesman of funk, Bootsy Collins, stands out with his insight and wisdom on music and life.

Bootsy first gained notoriety as the bass player for James Brown’s backing band “The J.B.’s”. He later joined foundational funk pioneers Parliament-Funkadelic, and led his own P-Funk side project, Bootsy’s Rubber Band.

Bootsy’s life experiences, and role in shaping vast amounts of American pop culture, make him uniquely suited to offer us insights today.  Here are five pearls of wisdom from Bootsy Collins, that have spoken to me over the years.

“You have to bring some funk to get some.  You just can’t walk in a place and expect to get some funk.  If you ain’t bring no funk, then you can’t get no funk…”

This is the first bit of wisdom that I found from Bootsy, and it has stuck with me.  I found this years ago when I was trying to get more parents involved in the Cub Scout Pack that I was leading.  We had a lot of parents that showed up with their kids, expecting a great program, and leaving all the work of delivering that program to a few dedicated people.

I put this quote (along with a picture) of Bootsy up on the screen and explained that if you wanted a good Scouting program for your kids – you had to contribute to that program.  It wasn’t feasible or fair to simply be a consumer of the program and expect others to do all the heavy lifting.

This is the same in our families, places of worship and work.  If you want to work in a “high reliability” team, you must do your part in modeling that behavior and driving change.  If you want to see improvements in diversity, equity, and inclusion, you must be willing to put in the work yourself. If you want a peaceful environment, you have to bring peace with you.

You can’t go through life with a consumer mindset and expect to have the world you want.  You need to be a contributor.

“… and if you fake the funk, your nose will grow.”

The first quote actually ends with this quote, but I wanted to call it out separately.  To me, this one line speaks to authenticity.  When “bringing the funk” (or the good attitude, or the desire to see your team succeed) you have to be authentic. 

If you “fake the funk” those around you will notice.  Your nose won’t physically grow like Pinocchio, but you will stand out similarly in a crowd.  As I shared in the “Leadership Frameworks” class, there is no one single model or style of leadership.

Find your own style.  Find your own leadership voice and lean into that.  Be your authentic self.  Always be open to coaching, growth and self-improvement – but don’t fake who you are.

Bootsy has recently collaborated with Snoop Dogg, so I’ll close here with a quote from Snoop on this subject:

“Be you.  Because once you be you, who can be you, but you?”

Snoop Dogg

“I wanna keep creating those situations for myself so I don’t have to be out front all the time. Then when I do have to be out front, I can do it to the max.”

This is the most recent quote that I’ve found from Bootsy, and it’s really speaking to me at this point in my life and career.  I’ve been with my company almost 25 years, and I’m closing in on 50 years old. 

I’m at a place where I realize that I don’t want or need to be out front all the time.  I’m also in a place where I can use my seniority and position to elevate those around me.  At some point I will retire from work, and at some point after that I will retire from Scouting. 

The smaller part of my legacy will be the programs that I ran, and the improvements that I made.  The larger part of my legacy will be the people that I equipped and evangelized for, who will do greater things than I did.

This is a cornerstone of what we do in Scouting – we train and equip people to be better leaders and make moral choices.  We train our youth to be the next generation of leaders, and we train our adults to be better leaders now to the youth and expand the program’s reach.  If we’re only worried about our own spotlight, the program will fail.

In Scouting I use a choir analogy to explain the “secret” of the Scouting program: 

“My singular voice trying to mold and teach my own kids is like a soloist singing, but an array of voices reinforcing the lessons in their own unique way is like a powerful choir.”

Skip Clarke

Hopefully we see this in practice at our places of work, worship and community.  We know that diverse voices carry our message farther and better than any one single voice.  It is our job to ensure we’re actively adding to the choir. 

Sharing the stage and letting others shine will ensure that I’m rested and ready when my voice is truly needed.

“The secret to walking on water is knowing where the rocks are.”

The idea of walking on water is to do something that is impossible.  Bootsy shares that the secret to accomplishing the impossible is knowing where the “rocks” are.  So, what are the “rocks”?  In my mind they are your strengths and your support system.

Accomplishing the impossible – or even accomplishing just the amazing, is only going to happen when we leverage our personal strengths.  For some of us that may be motivational speaking, for others it may be team building, and for others it may be detailed analytical work.

Rather than focus on areas where we are weaker, we should focus on honing our strengths, and on building relationships and teams with those who shore up our weaknesses.  These peer relationships and teams, along with our coaches and mentors, form our support system which is vital to success.

Impossible tasks are rarely completed alone.  Even if a singular piece of work is completed solo, that person was trained, encouraged, and coached by a host of people inside and outside of work.

Building a support system diverse in experience and thought, that will help develop and support you, is key to firm footing while walking on water.

“The power of the one.”

Bootsy’s most enduring lesson, and the one has shaped his career the most, is “the power of the one”.  This lesson originated during his tenure backing James Brown.  After a show, James would critique the backing band saying, “You’re the baddest band around, but you’re not giving me the one.”

Prior to Bootsy’s arrival on the music scene, bass lines were generally simple things.  Bootsy brought much more complexity and flair to the instrument, thinking that his more involved style would win everyone over.  While James Brown did indeed like Bootsy’s playing, his critique was that Bootsy wasn’t providing the proper emphasis on the first beat of the measure (“the one”) to lock in the groove.

James’ advice was essentially, “Give me the one, and you can do all those other things”.  This emphasis “on the one” was powerful enough to completely reinvent James Brown’s sound and would form the basis of funk rhythm.

Bootsy carried this musical and life lesson into his work with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, where staying “on the one” was essential to coalescing the on-stage chaos of 20+ musicians and singers into a cohesive sound.

“The one” provided singular direction for the collective to express themselves, both inside of Parliament-Funkadelic, and in their own side projects.  Each musician was given the freedom to be their authentic selves, and to unleash their musical strengths, in service to the collective vision.

I see this at work, where we have 50k+ employees working in their own way to achieving our purpose of “advancing the way people live and work”. I see it in my church where our mission is to “Follow Jesus. Lead Others to Jesus. Change the World.”

I also see it in Scouting where our mission is to “prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”

We each have our own way of “playing our part”.  As long as we keep our eye on “the one” and ensure what we are doing syncs with our larger purpose, we are free to be our authentic selves, lean into our strengths, and set out to walk on water.

*Dez Dickerson, guitarist in early incarnations of Prince’s band from 1980-1983, called Prince’s style of music “Punk Funk”.