I love to hike. Several times a week, I’m rejuvenated by walking through the rolling north hills of western Pennsylvania, where I enjoy the dense forests, beautiful streams, and sprawling farms. During these jaunts, I often pop in my ear buds to soak in the music of the singers/songwriters of the early 1970s.
Recently, the lyrics from several of these songs shot right through me. I still can’t explain why they captured me, but each one had a remarkable connection to the field of leadership. Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about and studying leaders, but the words rang true, and I’m now noticing more and more evidence of leadership qualities, mindsets, and behaviors through lyrics in many of my favorite songs. Here are a few examples …
Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (1975)
The opening lines of Bruce Springsteen’s transformational “Thunder Road,” penned in 1974, set the stage for the rest of the song:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
What strikes me about these lines is the vivid picture they create. Can you see the scene? Can you sense the moment? Are you able to feel yourself in the picture? At one point, Mr. Springsteen describes this song, intentionally placed as the opening number on his breakout album, “Born To Run,” as an invitation. It is an invitation to his audience, himself, and anyone else, to accompany him on an adventure through his music. And he begins this invitation by painting a picture that we all can envision.
What in the world does this have to do with leadership? In a word, everything. How often do we encounter employees who don’t know the value or purpose of their work? And I’ll bet you can list a number of people who can’t articulate where their company is headed, or how it will get there. Another thing that strikes me about these opening lines is that Mr. Springsteen is setting the stage for others to join; he is laying the vision and foundation for the audience, and establishing a feeling and intention through his words. I believe this is a great reminder for leaders. What accompanies leadership is an obligation to paint the picture, create a mood, and invite followers into a clear vision. This critical skill and approach unite people and lay the foundation for team success.
Stevie Nicks’ “After the Glitter Fades” (1981)
The second song that grabbed me was written by the legendary Stevie Nicks in 1981, and released in her debut solo album, “Bella Donna.” The piece is a reflective, arguably autobiographical, one that gives a sense of what the author has given up in order to fulfill her destiny as an entertainer. Yet, it is neither sad nor heavy. It comes across as purely authentic and genuine. There has been a price to pay, and all is not rosy and glorious, but ‘the life’ still rings true for her. Note the last two lines of the chorus:
Even though the living is sometimes laced with lies, it’s alright
The feeling remains even after the glitter fades
Here’s where I see the connection to the complex field of leadership. Accepting the label of leader is a choice, an intention, and a commitment to align resources to create positive change. By definition, leaders encounter setbacks, headwinds, adversity, and hardship. Those are simply natural components of the package. From my experience, however, the most effective and revered leaders embrace these realities and find that their commitments to their callings are stronger than any barriers they encounter. They lead because they see a better way forward, and they are driven by the challenge that presents. Great leaders are true to the cause, and genuinely devoted to their missions. Satisfaction is achieved not by glory and glitter, nor by pomp and circumstance, but by staying the course and remaining true to their authenticity. And consistent with Ms. Nicks’ lyrics, exemplary leaders stand steadfast in their joy, despite the hardships they endure.
Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer” (1974)
OK, I have one more for you. When this came through my earbuds on that particular hike, I literally stopped walking and got the chills (in a good way!). It came to me as a reset on perspective in a leadership context.
In 1974, Jackson Browne released a lesser-known classic, entitled “For A Dancer.” It is a track on his album “Late For The Sky,” which Bruce Springsteen declared a masterpiece when he inducted Mr. Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. This work is a humbling, sorrowful, yet enduring, look at life that Mr. Browne wrote upon the loss of one of his friends (a talented dancer and skater). While the subject in general is quite sad, the lyrics that grabbed me appear in the final four lines:
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
That you’ll never know
These last 22 words serve as a significant reminder for everyone, but when examined through a leadership lens I feel they have particular importance. My interpretation here has to do with cascading leadership, the notion that what you do impacts professionals throughout your organization, even those with whom you may not have direct contact. Like the outward-flowing rings of water created when a stone is dropped in a pond, the impacts and effects of what you do spread throughout your workplace. And you may never know who is feeling the reverberations of what you say and do. Accepting the mantle of leadership means we need to keep this perspective in plain sight and be diligent regarding how our actions will be observed and received even beyond our immediate presence.
The beauty of art is that it is open to interpretation. And you may interpret these songs and lyrics far differently than I’m suggesting here. I honor and recognize that reality. But to me, leaders need to set the stage and paint the picture that followers can embrace. There is no substitute for authenticity, and for leading through genuine commitment, as opposed to the pursuit of glory and glitter. And we need to be mindful of the impacts we have as our actions cascade through our organizations. These lyrics reinforce these messages to me, and I hope they have value for you and your leaders.
What lyrics offer leadership meaning for you?
Until next time, good leading.