Leadership Lessons from The Boss

I recently attended Springsteen on Broadway. I’m a NJ native and a longtime fan, so it was an amazing experience to see Bruce in an intimate setting and hear him sing the songs that defined important aspects of his personal development, from childhood to today. His life’s wisdom is on full display as he shares family and career stories during the show.

The show isn’t about being a rock star. It’s about Springsteen’s self-awareness.

While it might surprise some, there are many books and scholarly articles written about Bruce’s work. There’s also a lot in the show and on his records that pertains to leadership.

As an experienced leader, I’d like to share a few of my favorite lyrics and how they inform my leadership philosophy. 

“You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above”Tunnel of Love

I always thought this lyric was a great coaching concept. Although Bruce sings this line to describe a tortured romance, it applies well beyond personal relationships. This is about self-acceptance. Maybe you aren’t a great public speaker. That’s ok. Focus on your strengths and ways to improve other aspects of your performance.

As leaders, we sometimes struggle to be all things to all people, especially to ourselves. Difficulties in one area of our work may lead to dangerous self-doubt that we aren’t good enough. We can become trapped trying to show our teams how smart we are. Maybe we throw our positional power around in technical meetings, or perhaps we suddenly need to edit every document the team creates. Either way, we lose focus on leadership topics like employee engagement and strategy. It’s a quick, downward spiral.

Leadership Lesson: Accept yourself and focus on what you can control. You will be happier, more productive and will come to be viewed as an expert rather than a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

“Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny”Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

What I’ve always taken from this line is the importance of stepping back and trying to think about how I’ll feel about a situation in five minutes, five days or five years. We all have important jobs and the work we do can save lives. However, we can all take ourselves too seriously at times. The hard moments at work (or home) are just moments. They pass and don’t define us. With time comes perspective and learning.

In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith challenges leaders to ask themselves the question, “Is it worth it?” That’s the crux of this lyric. The hard moment, meeting, supervisor, etc. will pass and then you can look back with perspective. When you do, your anger and frustration at the moment may seem funny.

Leadership Lesson: Before you respond to a situation, make sure you have the proper perspective. Use this awareness to not get caught up in the moment.

“Let the broken heart stand as the price you gotta pay”Badlands

This line always reminds me that if we are to take risks, in life or at work, they might not pan out as we hope. We may end up with the proverbial broken heart. While sad, it is a badge of honor. As Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly, there is no shame in this kind of imperfection and vulnerability. If you allow it, there’s only learning.

Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about the “Man in the Arena” inspired Brown. These words are an important reminder for any leader looking to make a mark. Roosevelt states that the “credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” He goes on to exalt the failures of the risk taker, stating that his “place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” To have “dared greatly” is to have given it your all, to have taken your shot with honor and integrity.

Leadership Lesson: If you want to be great, you need to take risks. Don’t waste your time waiting until it feels perfect. Just be sure to learn from the inevitable broken hearts.

“Someday, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go”Born to Run

Optimism in the face of uncertainty permeates this final line from Born to Run and provides an important framework for leadership. A successful leader not only delivers on short-term goals but also creates a long-term vision. Realistically, however, as leaders, we don’t know exactly how or when we will “get to that place.” The ability to paint the picture of a future state that can inspire and engage your team is essential.

There are strategic planning tools to help with this. It’s not necessary for the vision to be exclusively that of the leader. A shared vision, written with the team, is energizing.

Nevertheless, in the end, the leader must believe in the vision and that the team will reach its goal. The leader must also share that belief publicly and often. If the leader doesn’t believe in the vision, why would anyone else?

Leadership Lesson: Create a vision you believe in and articulate it as often as you can. When you make progress toward it, celebrate your success with the team and push onward to the next goal.

The Encore

There are leadership lessons everywhere, even music.

Bruce Springsteen’s songs form a framework for my leadership approach, reminding me to accept myself, maintain perspective, take risks and have a vision.

These ideas served me well on my journey as a leader, and I hope they serve you well on yours.  

You might also be interested in 7 Songs That Get Me Through Big Projects and 7 Leadership Lessons from House of Cards’ Claire Underwood.

Jonathan Alboum is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Isaac Constans

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and loved how you tied in lessons from literature and history throughout. It’s easy to get trapped in the frame of mind that our challenges are unique, so music (particularly Springsteen) is a great reminder that we all reach peaks and valleys — but need to keep climbing.

Profile Photo John Burton

Great article! I’m a big Springsteen and music fan generally. I think the rebellious spirit of rock and roll is important to bring into the workplace (in moderation) if you want to be a change agent. One of my favourite lyrics is from his song Growin’ Up, “when they said ‘sit down’ I stood up”. It reminds me to speak up for the inclusive values that will take my organization to the next level.