7 Things Every L&D Leader Can Learn From David Bowie

David Bowie is gone. It chills me just to type. He was so…not human. How could he be dead? Facing the strange indeed.

As I sifted through various articles about his passing, I saw all sorts of words used to describe him: rock star, artist, visionary, chameleon, and my personal favorite: weirdo. It occurred to me that in the parlance of modern business, David Bowie was above all other things a thought leader. He took chances, stuck up for what he believed in, and pursued his own ideas about what great work could be.

In the spirit of this sentiment, here are 7 things every single one of us in learning & development could stand to learn from the one and only David Bowie.

1. Don’t wait for the next big thing. Become it.

Bowie didn’t follow trends—he set them. Do you? Billions are being funneled into our industry, and business leaders are saying learning is a top priority. But despite all the attention and excitement, most people will sit back and wait for the next big thing in learning to happen—instead of creating it themselves. Don’t be one of them.

2. Embrace changing technology.

In a New York Times interview from 2002, Bowie gleefully predicted that within 10 years music would become a free-flowing utility, “like running water or electricity.” With the arrival of streaming services like Spotify, that’s precisely what happened. As learning leaders, we’ve got to prepare for a similar transition. In a truly 21st century approach to development, accessing high-quality learning content should be as easy as turning on a faucet.

3. Redefine your role.

Was David Bowie a boy? A girl? An alien? Many people felt he was all of the above. He forced us to re-think the boxes we put ourselves in. As people in L&D, it would behoove us to do some similar boundary-pushing around what it means to be a learning professional. Great learning isn’t just an ancillary part of growing a company—it’s a primary driving force for innovation, employee satisfaction, and overall success.

4. Visuals matter.

What would Bowie be without the iconic swipe of glitter across his face? Or the explosive blonde shag of Jareth the Goblin King? Without the strong visual component to Bowie’s music, his message wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful. The same goes for learning content. Bold, exciting visuals are going to be increasingly crucial if you want your content to cut through the noise, get remembered, and change behavior.

Photo Credit: Ron Frazier, used under Creative Commons

5. Time is precious. Make the most of it.

Twenty-five albums, dozens of film roles, and loads of live performances, collaborations, and what-all else—the man was a ceaseless fountain of productivity. And ultimately, that’s one of the major goals in L&D: to help workers get the most out of their time. That’s why we’re fierce advocates of microlearning. When you break complex topics into short chunks of learning, you can improve performance right in the workflow, without losing any productivity.


GIF by Helen Green at

6. Don’t fear change. Run to it.

Bowie didn’t just sing about ch-ch-changes, he made them happen. As a result, his work was fresh and always ahead of its time. In L&D, we need to adopt more of the same progressive mentality. There are still too many clunky, outdated learning tools frustrating workers and inhibiting a company’s ability to progress. Thus far L&D technology has been slow to catch up to the rest of the world—we’ve got to pick up the pace.

7. Always remember the big picture.

Even though he continuously shape-shifted, the core of what Bowie was all about—blending theatricality with rock & roll—never changed. That common thread built trust among his followers. As learning and development professionals, we’re here for one simple purpose: to help people get better at what they do. As long as we can trace all our decisions back to that aim—and our people can sense that—we can feel free to take liberties, try new things, and always approach our craft with a sense of adventure. Just like he did.

Well folks, there you have it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d find myself writing about David Bowie and L&D in the same breath, but as we’ve seen—this world is ever strange and unpredictable, just like the Starman himself.