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Leadership Lessons from the Curious Case of Bob Dylan

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, so I thought I’d take a little bit of time to unwind, do some writing, and enjoy the weather here in DC. Today, the focus is on Bob Dylan, leadership, your career and some thoughts on Forever Young.

Bob Dylan has now released his 35th studio album, Tempest. Some Dylantologist say this might be a hint that Tempest is Dylan’s last album. Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest” was his last play. In a classic way, Dylan defused these rumors by stating, Shakespeare’s play is “The Tempest,” while his album is titled “Tempest.”

Anyways, personally, I hope he keeps going. Bob Dylan has always been one of my favorite musicians, and with his 35th album just released, there are some practical leadership lessons to look at from his career. Some of the examples below are from how Dylan has managed his career, and others are some quotes from some of my favorite songs. I close out the post taking a step outside the workplace and talk about a song that has been on my mind a lot as of late, Forever Young.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

In the song Love Minus Zero, No Limit, Dylan writes, “There is no success like failure, but failure’s no success at all.” As employers, employees, managers, we cannot be content with failure, but need to understand that there is always some lessons with failed projects.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Risk

Bob Dylan has taken dozens of risks throughout his career. He was supposed to continue the American-Folk tradition from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, with his acoustic guitar and harmonica. When he took out his guitar and started playing “Like a Rolling Stone,” everything changed, and Bob Dylan took his career in his own direction.

Know What Paradise Means

In probably one of my favorite closing verses by Bob Dylan, The Tale of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest ends by Dylan writing:

Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

At the workplace, Dylan is reminding us that we need to learn and understand how to keep ourselves happy, and if we focus on negativity in the workplace or dire situations, we will just not be happy in our careers. Further, the song concludes with the lesson of being who you are, learning who you are as individual, and do your best to not end up with the wrong crowd or somewhere you do not belong. Over the years, this verse has shaped who I am as an individual.

Continue to Evolve

Bob Dylan has consistently written different styles of music. From his early roots as an American Folk artist to rock and roll and gospel. He has always evolved. In our careers, there is not a time when you master leadership, master communications, or anything, the goal is to commit to always learning, always improving, and challenging yourself to continue to evolve.

Know Organizational Culture

Knowing the organizational culture and lay of the land is critical to excelling and leading an organization. Dylan writes in Ballad of a Thin Man, “Because something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” Knowing what is happening on the ground is critical to being a leader. Not just knowing what is happening, but knowing the right way to inspire and empower employees.

Stand By Employees

If you have never heard the song, “I’ll Be With You When the Deal Goes Down,” from Modern Times, I highly recommend you take a listen. This song is one of my favorites by Dylan. It’s one of Dylan’s best love songs, as the protagonist in the song beautifully reminds the love of their life, that they will be with them when the deal goes down. But, we aren’t here to do an analysis of sappy love songs (maybe next time), so, let’s not look at this in terms of love and romance, but remind ourselves how important it is that a manager supports their employees when the going gets tough.

Keep Your Network Strong

Bob Dylan’s Dream is another great song by Dylan, Dylan writes about the loss of friendship and the challenges of keeping in touch over the years. So the lesson is, don’t burn any bridges and keep growing your network. Dylan writes:

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

The idea of losing touch in the modern world is simply archaic. Just putting in a little extra effort to stay in touch can go a long way, in your personal life and for your career.

Be Able to Tell A Captivating Story

Dylan has written thousands of songs, thousands of lyrics and told thousands of stories. Dylan’s never ending tour still sells out, there is something about him that captivates his fans. After all these years, he continues to be able to tell a compelling story. Whether it is off his latest album recounting (well, kind of recounting..) the story of the Titanic or from his early years with Tangled Up in Blue, he has the ability to captivate and share compelling stories.

Dylan has a lot of great lessons through his music and lyrics. I recently took all my Dads’ vinyl records and stumbled upon a few bootleg albums Dylan released, it was like finding gold. In the end, Dylan’s lessons about life, his stories, and the characters he creates deeply connect with the human experience. That’s why I am drawn to Bob Dylan.

I always have trouble writing about Bob Dylan. I always joke that when I listen to some Dylan songs it is like the Seinfeld episode when “Desperado” comes on the radio, and Elaine’s boyfriend goes into a trance. I’ve always really connected to his music. I connect beyond just his songs, the music reminds me of a lot of great times growing up, I use to listen with my Dad in the car, around the house, and usually play Dylan while I am cooking.

A few months ago I wrote on my personal blog about the song Forever Young. This next section does not have anything to really do with the workplace, just my thoughts and analysis on the song. I thought I would share this with the GovLoop community, in case there are any Dylan fans out there. Take a look, be interested to hear your thoughts.

Bob Dylan Song in Review: Forever Young

I always go back and forth between my favorite Bob Dylan songs and albums. Lately I have been in a Planet Waves kind of mood. Seems like the albums correlate closely to ways I am feeling in life. This album has some real hidden Dylan gems, a post in itself would be the songs “Dirge” (Dylan’s meanest song ever, and maybe one of the meanest songs ever written) followed by the song Young Angel You. I really recommend you taking a listen to the album straight through, the flow of the album highlights the complexities of life, the uncertainty we face – and the range of emotions we go through in life. Dirge to You Angel You is a perfect example. I won’t ruin it for you, but really listen to Dirge and think why on Earth did he follow it up with You Angel You? It’s what separates Dylan from everyone else.

Although I love the entire album, the song that always gets to me is Forever Young. People take different interpretations when they listen to Bob Dylan music. It’s just like poetry, everyone has a different read and takes away different meanings. For me, Forever Young is one of Bob Dylan’s most powerful songs.

I’ve probably listened to this song 1,000 times in my life and seems like as get I older, the song takes on more meaning. When I was a teenager, it was the feeling of not wanting to grow up, and stay “Forever Young,” whatever that meant. I admit, I had no clue. In college, it was about not wanting to leave and not let the four years slip by. As an adult, now it’s about wanting to protect those I care about – not let them see the world as it is, my faults, the pain in realizing their own, and the darker sides of life. Last couple times I’ve listened to Forever Young, I can relate more with my parents and what they want for me and my sisters. It’s a song about protecting your children from the world and reality. It’s a song about wishing you could keep your kids in a perfect state, provide and nurture. On the surface, Forever Young can be seen as a very swallow song – in reality this song is so deep none of us can really see the bottom. It’s one of my favorites by Dylan.

But here is where the true genius of Dylan lies. It’s the two versions of Forever Young on the album. This is why you need to listen to the entire album! The first track of Dylan’s Forever Young on Planet Waves is a slow, serenade, in which Dylan is actually in tune. You feel like he is singing to you, sitting in your room by a fire. An old man smoking a pipe in a wooden cabin, snow falling, a dog by his side and sipping a glass of port. Well, maybe (probably) you don’t – but I do.

Sorry, the genius isn’t that Dylan got me to think about an old man in a cabin smoking and drinking, it’s the second version of Forever Young as a quick reprise, upbeat and energetic. It’s the polar opposite of the first song. It’s the overarching theme of Planet Waves – life is the crest of the wave and the crash. It’s the ups and downs. Both experiences are ones that we get the privilege to experience. So in his upbeat version, he is basically admitting that he knows staying Forever Young isn’t really what life is about, you need to round out the experience. It’s somewhat of a cautionary tale to his listeners.

In the end, I listen to this as a challenge to us about life. So as in the first part of Forever Young, as Dylan is the protector, the reprise is kind of saying -”hey buddy, it’s going to happen, you’re going to get old, enjoy the ride.” He is in an odd way, making us realize that part of life’s experience is not staying Forever Young. He is reminding us that at any age you can build your ladder to the stars, and in a way, you will always be, Forever Young.

Bob Dylan is a remarkable figure, his music and lyrics are in a league of their own. Anyways, just wanted to share some thoughts on one of my heroes, and would be interested to hear your thoughts.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Pat. I always like it when folks take their passions and tease out lessons for life and work. The networking one spoke to me:

And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again

In some ways, this is exactly what’s happening with social media…but to your point, you’ve got to be intentional about maintaining the relationships – personal and professional – that matter most.

Mark Hammer

But to live outside the law you must be honest” – Absolutely Sweet Marie

If you want to flout the rules or take big risks or simply speak truth to power, consistent integrity is required to have that moral authority.

Dick Davies

Aiyee great post! Taking it to Spotify!

Lesson for bloggers – Write 35 albums worth and there may be some great stuff!

Thanks for curating!