How can you create something that is bigger than yourself?
Let me share with you a quick story about how Smokey Robinson did exactly that.
The way he tells it, Smokey had a melody swirling in his head, and the words, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”
Not exactly Shakespeare. It could have been the message inside a Hallmark Card.
Instead, it became a classic.
That song can still make us smile, a half-century later, as soon as we hear the opening bass line.
That’s because Smokey knew how to collaborate.
He knew how to recognize potential in others, to tap into their talents. and connect on a deep level.
Fade to 1964, backstage at the Apollo Theater.
Back then, Smokey recalls, he was thinking of David Ruffin’s mellow, yet gruff baritone voice – and how, if he sang something sweet and sincere, the contrast would connect with people on many levels.
Smokey said he just imagined a pulsating, heartbeat tempo.
Then the melody came to him.
When he was on the road with the Temptations, backstage at the Apollo, he started playing the piano and shared with them the few words he had for what would become “My Girl”.
Then David Ruffin took the lead, and the rest of group began adding background vocals, singing, “hey-hey-hey,” then climbing a stair step of “my girls,” echoing David’s vocal.
None of those essential touches were even remotely in Smokey’s mind before they all started collaborating.
Together, in the moment, everyone knew they were creating something special.
A few weeks later, in the recording studio, the Funk Brothers (Motown’s studio band) started filling in the sound.
Robert White started walking around the studio, playing a riff that became the song’s signature line. But halfway in, Robert cut it off saying, “No, no, no.” He didn’t think what he had was right. And Smokey excitedly said, “No, no, no, my butt. That’s going to be in the song.”
And now, of course, that opening guitar riff is among the most famous.
What I love about this story is that, while it started with Smokey’s germ of an idea, it could have gone nowhere if he wasn’t the kind of leader who knew how to collaborate.
He surrounded himself with great talent, knew what they were capable of, understood how to tap into their potential, then trusted them – so they could run with an idea, and take it somewhere he could never have imagined.
That’s how he was able to create something bigger than himself.
That trust came from his heart.
From there came his uncanny ability to lead by collaborating.
He knew how to inspire others, to share, and to recognize when something “sounded right.”
If he had held on to the song in his head, and insisted that he be the one to sing it, “My Girl” probably would have been just another “B” side of one of the many hits he recorded with The Miracles.
Instead, he reached beyond himself, and he touched all of us.
Collaborating, as Smokey Robinson shared, starts with letting go – not holding on to an idea and believing that it is “yours.”
To allow your initial thought to grow, first you need to let go.
Then you have to trust.
Know that you are surrounding yourself with top performers, understand the distinct qualities that make you and them exceptional – and trust each other.
You also need to believe – that the future will be better than you could have possibly imagined.
You want sunshine on a cloudy day?
Let go, trust, and believe.