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Ten Leadership Lessons to Steal from Springsteen

Creative Commons photo by GabboT

Steal if you want to, but I think Springsteen would let you drive away with any insight you’d like from his recent memoir
Born to Run.

Even if you aren’t looking for your path to rock ‘n roll stardom, you may get mesmerized, as I was, by a peak into the life of this aging icon of explosive Jersey virility. I’m not into celebrity memoirs, but Born to Run hit the top ten on multiple memoir lists last year.
 (And besides,  I’m a Jersey girl myself.) The book takes you in through the backdoor of a life that started out scrappy before veering to stardom, where the gods continued to chastise hubris by sending down big doses of doubt and depression. His writing is candid and compelling, blending a passionate love of rock ‘n roll with the wisdom of age. Full of images that stick with you, like his songs

Maybe we all have an inner-rock star in us, waiting to be discovered. If you want to know what it takes to succeed when all you have to start out with is grit, commitment and talent, listen up. Here are a few of my take-aways:

  • You don’t have to be good at the beginning. Springsteen knew what he wanted—to be good—and then great—at playing rock ‘n roll. He didn’t start out that way. He had talent and drive but it took a long while for his performance to begin to match his aspirations.
  • Practice your craft—like crazy. Start anywhere. Get experience. Lots of it. Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it can take ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Springsteen is living proof. Even though he knew he was good, he kept noticing where others were better, and used that as motivation to keep learning.
  • Commit. “All in” is how he describes his expectations of the commitment he wanted from band members and what he demanded of himself. They are still giving all in their 60s. Springsteen’s “meteoric rise” to stardom took years of preparation and sacrifice; even becoming a superstar with its financial reward didn’t make the journey easy. What sustained him was a ferocious commitment to his art.
  • Know what matters. Springsteen developed his skills and performance chops during the days when he was broke and coach-surfing around working class Freehold, New Jersey. He knew how to keep his expenses low. When he started to gain fame, he put his money into recordings rather than trappings. He lived at the edge financially for a long time, even as his record sales topped millions.
  • Leverage your strengths. Springsteen knew that his rough and raspy voice wasn’t the world’s greatest, even as his vocals worked well with his music. But he played to his strengths and built his success upon them: songwriting, musicianship, an ear for talent, love for his audiences, and indomitable energy, especially on stage.
  • Acknowledge your roots. Although he never went back to live in Freehold, Springsteen never forgot where he was from. The heart of his Americana—the run-down, disadvantaged, hot-rodded, immigrant-filled Jersey shore—gave soul to his music. And he was always willing to credit the musicians who had influenced him.
  • Keep control of the enterprise. When it came to his band and his music, Springsteen wanted control. He would always be “The Boss.” Yet his leadership style allowed his best music to come forward, and he was able to keep changing and developing his music over time without having to go to others for permission. His leadership style wouldn’t work for everyone; but it was right for him and his artistic mission.
  • Make lots of mistakes. Part of what’s thrilling about reading Born to Run, is learning about those mistakes. When he was young, wild, and consumed with getting his music to the public, he didn’t read his first contract carefully enough. Five years later that omission exploded into a disastrous fight. Fortunately, he was able to buy back rights to his own published music. Along the way, he hurt people he wouldn’t have wanted to hurt and spent too long and too much money in some of the band’s recording marathons. The mistakes didn’t stop him.
  • Take the time. Springsteen worked for six months on his mega-hit song Born to Run, which catapulted him into a new stage of his career. He wouldn’t release an album until he thought it was right. Those of us who feel so much pressure to get things out NOW might think about this. Not all of our projects are worthy of the kind of attention Springsteen put into this records, but we have to discern which ones are.
  • Play the long haul. From the start of his career, Springsteen knew he didn’t want to become a shooting star, soaring high and burning out. His goal was to keep doing the thing he loved – playing rock n roll—and growing as a musician throughout his life. He’s done that. Towards the end of the book, he talks frankly about his depression, which became more acute as he entered his 60s. Partly an inheritance from his father, partly a reflection of the roller-coaster rock-n-roll lifestyle, where the give-it-all euphoria of the big stage and adulating fans can lead to brutal post-performance come-downs. Years of therapy, prescribed medications, and his committed, loving wife, Patti Scialfa, became his anchors. Throughout it all, he continued to love fiercely: his fans, his family, the band, and the magic of standing on stage.

My biggest take-away? Springsteen has kept his passion for music pulsing for fifty plus years. And he’s still going strong. He worked hard, really hard, to make the most of his talent, helped by some good people and lucky breaks. But he didn’t hatch overnight. Just as neither do we.

Here’s the original video for Born to Run. Enjoy the energy and remember you, too, were younger once! Click here to listen.



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