What does Bruce Springsteen and Born to Run teach us about leadership?

I’ve been a Bruce Springsteen (the Boss) fan since he first toured Europe in 1975 and have seen him a dozen times, including this year in Sydney, so I was naturally keen to read his autobiography, Born to Run, published last year. My expectations were high as far as his life story was concerned and seeing more than 500 pages I obviously thought there would be interesting content.

The reality was that I was blown away by it, I have never read over 500 pages in a week (I am a slow reader!) but far more significantly was how much more than a memoir of his life journey the book turned out to be. It covers 60 years of my life, particularly the music history which is such an incredible period in the evolution of popular modern culture. It also covers World events, many of which are referenced in his songs using highly evocative prose. The book is a travelogue, particularly the USA but also the rest of the World. Lastly, it contains so many lessons, messages, images that relate to leadership and realising a dream or vision.

Born to Run is exceptionally well written over a 7 year period starting in 2009 after he appeared at the Super Bowl as the half time entertainment. Not surprisingly, given that he is a poet like Bob Dylan in his song writing, the vocabulary, descriptions and analogies are vivid, with plenty of humour and sometimes deep honesty, particularly about his periods of depression and difficulty in relationships with his father, various band members and close friends. One of the toughest times followed the illness and death of Clarence Clemons, the Band’s brilliant saxophonist and Bruce’s soulmate.

From the moment Springsteen saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show he knew what he wanted to be and set out to realise that goal, but without a clear plan because plans didn’t exist on how to become a rock star and probably still don’t! It took immense hard work learning to be a top musician, determination to succeed in such a tough industry, build relationships with key influencers, overcome rejections and other knocks, then to build a successful band and fan base, which became World-wide to the extent that he can fill stadiums anywhere, even now at age 68. 

My interest in leadership goes back 40 years covering business and sport but I have not previously thought much about the leadership involved in building and maintaining a successful rock band. Bruce’s approach turns out to adopt many of the same principles and techniques that will be familiar to anyone who has read the stories of famous entrepreneurs or leaders in business and sports. For example, setting hugely challenging expectations and targets for his East Street Band members (on and off stage), taking tough decisions to remove underperforming people or those that simply don’t “fit” with the Boss’s demands and high standards. The band practice and record production is legendary as to achieve exactly what Bruce wants does not always come easily. The set-list for his concert tours changes every night and the band do not always know what track to expect next as he takes prompts from the audience, usually displayed on home-made signs! 

After Clarence died and Jake (his nephew) was invited to an audition by Bruce but turned up unprepared, he was read the “riot act”. However, Jake was given a second chance and didn’t disappoint, since becoming an important band member, although a moving tribute to his famous uncle is usually played during each concert.

Perhaps less known to non-disciples would be the expectations he sets for the fans for his music, the performances (which can often last nearly 4 hours without a break) and his role as a voice to stand up against discrimination, poverty, corrupt and powerful figures or institutions and in support of ordinary working-class people and left of centre political issues, sometimes in conflict with Governments and other authorities. 

The best example would be his 2002 album The Rising inspired a few days after 9/11 when a stranger stopped his car next to Springsteen’s, rolled down the window and said “we need you now, Bruce”. My City of Ruins was originally written about his local area, Asbury Park, but took on greater significance when included on The Rising. Bruce’s importance to his fans was portrayed convincingly in the film Springsteen and I, issued in 2013.

Most significantly in leadership terms, there is an ongoing purpose to Springsteen’s work, allied to keeping the American dream alive. He has been acutely aware for decades that self-awareness is necessary to become a better leader and his quote “you serve at the behest of your audience’s imagination” seems to sum up a powerful driving force.

Find out more about Pete's areas of leadership expertise here or email him at pradcliffe@lightbulbleaders.com.

Pete Radcliffe