When I was a teenager growing up in the 1970’s, I was a music junkie. I had a hard time remembering the names of songs but I sure spent a lot of time recording cassette tapes to play in my car or at home. I made dozens upon dozens of custom tapes for all moods and occasions. My taste in music was rather eclectic, with one exception – I thoroughly disliked country music. “A Boy Named Sue” epitomized all that was repulsive about country music. I enjoyed listening to Tull or Zeppelin or Frampton as much as I did the Carpenters, Bread, or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Jazz, soul, classical, R&B…you name it, I made cassette tapes of the stuff…except for country music. My bell just wasn’t rung by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash or the TV show, Hee Haw. Truth be told, I did watch Petticoat Junction and Green Acres on TV every afternoon. Go figure. During middle school and high school, I lived in Salt Lake City, Utah and traveled throughout the west during those years. Thus, I had plenty of opportunity to listen to country music. But it disgusted me in ways that 70’s bubble gum pop songs did not.
A few years ago, my teenage daughters, born in the hip music city of San Francisco but now living in North Carolina, started listening to country music. Though they love me and I them, I’m often considered “off,” “flat out weird,” “gross,” a “dork” (my 1970’s description of their eye rolling when I’m trying to be cool), “random,” or some other term that describes middle age male psychopathology in the eyes of teenage girls. To reduce my teenage dorkiness quotient, I decided to give country music another chance. I listened to the country songs they liked. Some of it wasn’t half bad….I might even admit that I liked it. Some of the artists were easily tolerable (e.g., Sara Evans, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks) though in my alone-time in the car with my beloved Sirius Satellite Radio, you won’t find me listening to channels 60 (New Country), 61 (Prime Country), 62 (Roadhouse), 63 (Outlaw Country), or 65 (Bluegrass). Nope, when I’m alone in the car, the station is mostly tuned to a news station or to 7 (Totally 70’s), 14 (Classic Vinyl), or 15 (Classic Rewind).
Recently, however, I had an epiphany. While the women of my house were in major gathering mode (i.e., shopping in a city 2 hours from our home), I found myself watching, of all things, “Walk the Line,” the story of Johnny Cash (of “A Boy Named Sue” fame). Beyond the compelling story of his life, the great music (did I really just write “great”?), and the fabulous acting, I think there are a few leadership lessons that were embedded in the story.
First, words and the stories the words weave, as well as the emotion behind those words, matter a great deal. Johnny Cash had the unique ability to connect with his audience through powerful, authentic stories. Think about leaders you respect. To what extent do they have this same ability? I would venture a guess that most can tell good stories of human frailty and success. As a leader, do you attempt to connect with people in the same way that musicians do? If not, give it try. Put on a black shirt and black pants and give ‘em your best Johnny Cash-esque “I’m going to connect with you” effort.
Second, resiliency is a key to success. Johnny Cash went through some very difficult times. All leaders also face challenges, at home or at work, at multiple times in their lives. Your ability to work your way through these challenges, to grow, and to become stronger or more insightful as a result of these experiences, are key to your development as a leader. In CCL terms, we refer to this body of work as “Lessons of Experience.”
Third, the social and emotional support of loved ones is essential to success as a leader. Johnny Cash could not have handled his challenges alone. Most leaders, too, need a supportive network of family and friends to navigate the rough waters of life. For all that we hear about “charismatic” leaders, “heroes,” and the like, we know that behind every good leader is a supportive network of loving humans. Leadership is not a solo flight.
Well, time to get back to listening to music. Maybe it’ll be a “Boy Named Sue”….or maybe not.