Originally published on Forbes.com.
Richie Sambora has been Bon Jovi’s guitarist for 30 years. On April 30th we learned from the band’s website that Sambora is on a hiatus from the band because of “personal issues.” Considering that the last few times Sambora left the band it was to go to rehab for alcoholism, the implication was that he might be boozing again. When Jon Bon Jovi told the London Evening Standard that “It’s getting more and more difficult every day to not just sit here and say something… all I can say is this – it’s for personal reasons,” he lent support for that theory, since “personal reasons” can be code for rehab.
But Sambora does not appear to be in rehab. He claims he is fine and working hard on his fashion company. If so, then why did he leave? Sambora’s statements to the press hint at internal friction. “Enough with the trash-talking,” Sambora told the Daily Mail last Wednesday, “Jon needs to stop talking about me publicly.”
The problem with Bon Jovi may be more nuanced than substance abuse or even internal conflicts. Sambora and Bon Jovi are no Keith Richards and Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. In their 30 years together, they have not publically displayed strife or tension, and conflict does not appear to be an inherent part of their working relationship. In that regard, they are more like Bono and The Edge.
Publically, they have tended to express strong support for each other. “My journey has been steadfast to be Jon’s right-hand man.” Sambora said in the 2009 documentary, When We Were Beautiful. “I’ve always had it in my head that the success of our band was going to be our leader being very very happy. And I try to always be there for him… if I can help Jon be in a great mood as much as possible, I’m gonna do it. That’s been a part of what I put on myself as a responsibility.”
In string quartet terms, Sambora is Bon Jovi’s second violinist. Second violinists must always play the role of supporters, no matter what the first violinists do. This is true during performances, but it is also true behind the scenes. First violinists usually lead their quartets, just as Jon Bon Jovi, who is his band’s lead singer, principle songwriter, and namesake, is the leader of Bon Jovi. Sambora seemed to be OK with that, though he probably doesn’t receive enough recognition for his role in the success of the band.
Among string quartets, second violinists are flight risks. They are most likely to quit. But research finds that quartets that appreciate their second violinists are less prone to lose them. They generally play better too. For Sambora, being second fiddle doesn’t have to be a problem as long as he feels appreciated and respected within the band.
Rather than hinting and complaining to the media, Bon Jovi and Sambora should take a page from their own history. In 1990, the exhausted members of Bon Jovi took a hiatus from touring and recording. At that point they had enjoyed a level of success enjoyed by few bands. Their album Slippery When Wet was the highest selling album of 1987. Their 1988 follow up was another chart topper. They sold out stadiums around the world. But by 1991, they were on the verge of disbanding.
Instead of breaking up, they decided to face their problems. They hired a band therapist, took a Caribbean vacation together, and spent time speaking their minds and listening to each other’s points of view. They affirmed their commitment to each other. Those difficult conversations happened within the band, not in front of reporters. It took courage for the members of Bon Jovi to face their problems, and that courage paid off.
Many teams suffer from problems that come out of people’s reluctance to talk about difficult issues. In a study of a large university hospital, my colleagues and I found that more than a fifth of the medical mishaps reported in the study could have been prevented if someone had been willing to risk having a difficult conversation. More often than not, when residents disagreed with a senior physician’s course of action, they kept it to themselves.
People’s natural inclination to back away from tough issues is exacerbated when there is a power imbalance on a team. Theoretically at least, Bon Jovi needs Jon Bon Jovi more than it needs Richie Sambora. Though not necessarily true (leaders need good right-hand-men), this imbalance is a deterrent to resolving whatever difficulties they are experiencing.
Sambora’s talent as a musician and his willingness to support the leader of the band has helped hold Bon Jovi together through three decades. If Sambora and Bon Jovi want to “hold on to what they’ve got,” they should consider meeting face to face for some difficult conversations.