3 Lessons in Leadership from Bruce Springsteen’s Legendary Journey as the Boss

In 2008, Bruce Springsteen campaigned for Barack Obama during the U.S. presidential campaign. Later, when the rock legend was presented with a Kennedy Center award Obama said: “I’m the President, but he’s ‘The Boss’.”

Springsteen gained this fitting moniker in the late 1960s when he was tasked with collecting and distributing his band’s fee from club managers. In his recently released autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen gives his fans unabridged insights into his motivation, inspiration, and yes, even the demons and fears that he’s conquered as a legendary musician and leader.

Dr. Mario Moussa and Dr. Derek Newberry, authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance, have gathered these invaluable leadership lessons from Springsteen’s memoir. I’d like to pass them along to you.

1. Experiment with your passion.

It happened in a record store, when Springsteen saw “The Hair.” It adorned the four mop-top musicians on the cover of Meet the Beatles. He embraced the look, a vision, if you like, in business terms, and decided to create a band in the mold of the Fab Four. But the Boss wasn’t made overnight. As with any startup, it took years of hard work and experimentation for Springsteen to become a household name.

Early in his “launch” phase, he dedicated himself to two basic tasks, to hone his craft and build a team.

Springsteen learned to love performance at the local YMCA where, as a young Catholic-school boy, he had the rare opportunity to do the Twist with public-school girls. But soon he found his true calling as a rock-and-roller and learned how to let his fingers do the dancing on the frets. He was nothing if not disciplined, memorizing the licks of the best guitarists on the local scene and practicing until his “fingertips were as hard as an armadillo’s shell.”

Springsteen searched for years until he found the musicians who could help him to tell his distinctive story. The unflagging effort produced a group that ultimately included guitarist Steve Van Zandt, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and the other artists who had just the right mix of sound, talent, personality, and image.

Sure, Springsteen had something to say, but he experimented, made mistakes, regrouped, and worked like crazy for years before he learned how to communicate it. Take note, would-be leaders: there are no short-cuts to realizing your vision.

2. Know thyself.

Ancient philosophers and successful rock stars know how important it is to “know thyself.” For Springsteen, that meant acknowledging he didn’t have much of a voice. Yet he realized that he would have to do it all: “write, arrange, play, perform and, yes, sing to the best of my ability.”

Like Springsteen, management expert, Jim Collins, has learned that great leaders “confront the brutal facts.” Springsteen, for his part, recounts that his “vocal imperfections” only inspired him to work harder on his writing and performing.

We all operate to some degree with what psychologist Shelley E. Taylor calls “positive illusions.” In other words, we think we’re just a little more talented than we actually are, and usually this self-deception helps us get by. But it is counterproductive if you want to perform at the highest levels. As Springsteen observes, “the sound in your head has little to do with how you actually sound.” For him, a tape recorder served the function of a “bullshit detector.”

To be your best, as a communicator or team leader, you’ll need your own detector.

3. Become the person you want to be.

In a recent interview, NPR’s Terry Gross asked Springsteen if he ever thought about the fact that “many people really wanted to be you.” He responds: “I had plenty of days where I’d go, ‘Man, I wish I could be that guy’.”

Is Springsteen admitting to being inauthentic on stage? Hardly. He is recognizing that a performance of any kind is all about being on stage. When you run a meeting, deliver a speech, or give feedback, you are on stage, performing. In other words, it takes discipline, professionalism, and commitment to communicate and connect; it involves consciously playing the right role, whether it be rock star, business leader, or president. Yes, you have to “confront the brutal facts about yourself,” but then you have to work with your limitations to get people to buy into your vision.

In the words of General Electric’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, “Leadership is an intense journey into yourself.” Born to Run is an account of one such journey, which led Bruce Springsteen from Colts Neck, New Jersey to becoming “The Boss.” We would be thankful if all of our leaders, corporate as well as political, were willing to walk a similar path.


Originally published at www.inc.com on October 31, 2016.

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