Have you ever wondered why you can easily remember the lyrics to a catchy song from years ago, yet find it hard to recall what you ate just yesterday for breakfast? Music has an uncanny ability to circumvent our logical brains and instead lives deeply within our emotional bodies. When we resonate with a powerful tune or are inspired by a musician’s message, we can instantly recall how it made us feel. This has me thinking about the real power of music and what this medium might offer in terms of learning leadership. Curious as to what lessons my own meager collection (about 5K tracks on my iTunes) might ascertain, I recently re-listened to a few favorites but with my leadership headphones on….this is what I heard:
1. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson
“I’m Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Want Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change”
The King of Pop was on to something here. Every leader must learn to lead themselves first. This often means having the courage to realize when you’re ineffective and what adjustments you might need to make. As leaders we are always changing, as are the environments in which we lead. Constant self-assessment and feedback are critical to understanding that man (or woman) in the mirror. The best leaders make this a consistent practice in their lives.
”I’m not afraid
To take a stand
Come take my hand
We’ll walk this road together, through the storm
Whatever weather, cold or warm
Just letting you know that you’re not alone
Holler if you feel like you’ve been down the same road”
While Eminem might be far from your idea of a model leader, in “I’m Not Afraid,” a more mature voice emerges as he raps about the struggles of overcoming drug/alcohol addiction and fully owning his responsibilities as a parent. The main chorus in particular elicits a theme that is reoccurring in many of his songs — I understand your pain, I am willing to sacrifice for you, join me and together we shall overcome. This is the same call to action that every leader must make if they are to recruit and maintain followers. Great leaders communicate their empathy for follower’s needs, embody a philosophy of selfless-service, and align the team in a common purpose.
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world”
In this celebrated song, John Lennon asks the listener to imagine a world freed from class, religious, or political boundaries. He also encourages people to focus less on material possessions. Ultimately, the song is a passionate call for world peace. Could there be a better example of how to create and express a vision? Lennon does a masterful job of understanding the current situation (written in 1971 during the Vietnam War), envisioning a different future, and communicating a path in a succinct and powerful way that challenges others to act. The real testament to his genius is that his call for more tolerance and equality is no less relevant today.
4. This is not a Song it’s an Outburst: The Establishment Blues by Rodriguez
“This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact”
If you don’t yet know the story of Rodriquez, I highly recommend you watch this amazing 60 minutes special on his music and life story (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/rodriguez-the-rock-icon-who-didnt-know-it/). “This is not a Song it’s an Outburst: The Establishment Blues” was a call to action that no one heard in the US. It sold very little copies and Rodriguez’s career essentially flopped. Yet years later, the song became an anthem for South Africans to rise up against the evil of Apartheid and sold millions of records. The leadership message is clear. Not everyone is fit to lead in every environment. Hone your abilities, hold to your values, and practice authentically bringing your leadership gifts to the world. Ultimately, with enough patience, those who you need your leadership most will find you.
5. Get Up Stand Up by Bob Marley
“Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight
Get up, stand up. Life is your right
So we can’t give up the fight”
This iconic reggae song was conceived while Marley was touring Haiti. He was so extremely moved both by the lives of the Haitians and the extreme poverty they faced; that he called for all to “Get Up Stand Up” and fight for greater equality in the world. Leadership is often about fighting the status quo and sustaining yourself in such battles requires tremendous energy. This can be difficult to sustain over time. A leader who cannot passionately advocate for a mission will never attract and retain followers. Thus, wise leaders prudently take on the issues that give them a strongest sense of meaning and purpose. Figure out what makes you “Get Up Stand Up” and lead the change you most desire.
“She’s strong, pushes on, can’t slow her down
She can take anything life dishes out
There was a time
Back before she was mine
When I thought I was tough”
In Western corporate culture, there can be a tendency to overly value the warrior/hero archetype of leadership and then falsely attribute those qualities more frequently to men. Craig Morgan’s country hit “Tough” reminds us that real toughness, like leadership, can come from anywhere. The warrior/hero in this song is his wife who manages the challenges of their day-to day lives with ease. Then when she struggles through a bout with cancer, he marvels at her will and resiliency. Leaders should be mindful of their own assessments of what a leader is and isn’t. Know that leadership can come from anyone in your organization and make a point to recognize the often overlooked leadership that is being exhibited all around you.
7. Blue Train by John Coltrane
No Lyrics…All instrumental bliss.
Pretty much any classic jazz track would suffice here, I chose Coltrane’s “Blue Train” for its mix of catchy riffs and universal appeal. Rather than providing a message that relates to leadership, performing Jazz in itself is an act of leadership. In fact, leadership guru Max DePree wrote a book about the links between jazz and leadership called “Leadership Jazz” back in 1993 (http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Jazz-Essential-Elements-Leader/dp/0440505186). In essence, DePree writes that leaders, like jazz musicians, must stay attuned to the needs and ideas of their followers and even step aside at times to be followers themselves. Listen to “Blue Train” and you can hear this philosophy come to light. Coltrane asserts himself when appropriate while also bringing out the best in those around him. It’s masterful.
8. Staying Alive by The Bee Gees
“Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother,
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’,
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.”
What could the Bee Gees possibly teach us about leadership you might ask? While their 1977 Grammy award winning hit might not have been intended to have anything to do with leadership — it might as well be every true leader’s personal anthem. Whenever you choose to exhibit leadership, you are moving against a norm and often against authority whose job it is to maintain those norms. Move too fast or without proper support and your’e likely to experience what Harvard Leadership professors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky call “getting assassinated” (a.k.a. getting fired or marginalized to the extent where you are no longer effective) Surfacing conflict and challenging the status quo will cause people to experience pain. Savvy leaders understand this and raise and lower the heat accordingly, moving the needle while simultaneously keeping themselves in the game. Leadership is risky business and it’s all about staying alive!
So there you have it. Eight songs that will hopefully inspire you to think about your own leadership and how you can be more effective as a leader. I also realize this list is far from all-encompassing so if you have a favorite to add, I’d love to hear from you!
1. Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
(David understands how effective leadership generates success. He a holds a degree in Leadership Development from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Master of Science in Organization Development from American University. A combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he now consults to Fortune 500 companies internationally. Learn more at http://www.leadergrowthgroup.com)
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