28 February 2023

Louis Eksteen

In nine minutes of raucous performance The Boss shows us how to lead

As Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band currently tour the USA, my mind drifts to their historic live performance in Leipzig, Germany in July of 2013. This event showcased not only Springsteen’s incredible musical talents but also his ability to teach us valuable lessons on leadership.

Enjoy this wonderful leadership masterclass. It’s a foot-tappin’, sing-along masterpiece.

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid of taking a risk

A Bruce Springsteen live concert is known for him and the band to ask for suggestions of cover songs to perform. The audience write their requests on all manner of placard and then a few are chosen for the show. According to Springsteen, they try to select a song every night that they haven’t played since they were: “I don’t know… 16… and maybe younger”.

As a super-experienced live touring group, they have probably performed many of the requested tunes multiple times over the years. But in Leipzig on 7 July 2013, they chose a song they had not performed forever. Springsteen picks up the request for Chuck Berry’s classic You never can tell with a bemused look and starts trying to remember how it goes, all in front of a huge live audience. He’s searching for the right key there and then. He’s also fishing for a hook to present the old classic in a new way.

You might know this song from the famous Vincent Vega (John Travolta) / Mrs Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) award-winning dance routine in the retro Jack Rabbit Slim’s 1950s-themed restaurant during a showstopper scene in Pulp Fiction, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

So, with a false key start or two, Springsteen leads the somewhat bewildered E Street Band in figuring out what to do.

Within your capabilities range as an individual or business, it’s good to take on a challenge, especially a risky one. Something that will stretch you and your team, but ideally a task that fits well within your broad field of experience and expertise. Taking on a completely new endeavour without any knowledge, skill or experience in the field is obviously not a good idea. Stick to your knitting but challenge yourself.

Lesson 2: Consult your team, while leading them

As Springsteen tries to figure out the right key in which to sing the song and how to present it in an interesting way to the audience, he looks over to his bandmate Little Steven van Zandt for an approval nod or some such affirmation, but Little Steven disagrees with the direction he is going in at first. Springsteen continues on his own track until he realises and admits he’s starting in the wrong key and corrects himself to literally change his tune mid-stream.

He also swops his guitar, then strums confidently and exclaims: “I got it!”.

Try something new, ask advice, listen, learn, know when you’ve made a mistake and correct. Then continue leading.

Lesson 3: Provide clear instructions to your team

Springsteen now wants his E Street Horns section to perform a crucial part of the song in a certain way, so he sings the part out to them: “Ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta to ta dah daaah. Pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa po pah paaah”. They seem a bit reluctant and reticent at first, so he repeats the instruction a few times over for clarity and direction.

If your team knows what to do and are experts at how to do it, the battle is halfway won. You still have to provide clear instructions though and cajole them to get going in the direction you’re leading them, but a crucial part of leadership is to actively participate with your team and to guide them along the path you’re taking.

Lesson 4: Challenge your team to come along with you

After the instructions to his horns section, Springsteen challenges with a “Can you do it?”. Then he motivates them with a mixture between mild and light forcefulness: “Try it boys”.

You need your team to go in your direction, so they will need some friendly motivation along the way, especially for a challenging new task.

Lesson 5: Take your customers along for the ride

As Bruce and the band get going along his chosen path, with the horns section starting to perform what he wants, he turns to the audience and takes them along the journey too: “Let’s hear you help us”.

He actually asks them for assistance, something that immediately binds the audience and band together in the quest to perform the tune in his interesting, different and fresh way. Together they start practising.

If you have established a positive chemistry between your business and your customers, there is nothing better than to take them along for the ride. They will understand your challenges and will be happy to join in to help you perform the task required properly. In fact, they will enjoy the journey with you.

Lesson 6: After all the preparatory work, just get it done

At a certain point during the crowd-infused practising and in the early stages of delivering the Chuck Berry classic for everyone’s enjoyment in a surprising manner, Springsteen realises the moment of truth has arrived and he asks / warns his band that they are about to erupt in song: “Are you ready band?”

Suddenly it’s on! Springsteen counts it down for everyone: “Here we go! A one two! It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well…”

Execution is everything. A strong leader knows when to stop trying, planning, practising and when to simply just follow through and get the task done.

Lesson 7: Let your people shine as individual parts of the team

During the fresh, upbeat, rocking delivery of Never can tell in full swing, Springsteen nods and calls out to first the piano and then the horn section one by one to give each an opportunity to express themselves within the context of how he’s leading them to perform the song. They are pros, so they love it and perform their impromptu solo pieces well.

“Come-on Barry, what have you got?”

This opportunity for individuals to show what they can do as part of a team simply makes everything better. As a leader you should step back in these moments and let your people take centre stage.

And then The Boss concludes it all in the appropriate manner: Him now centre stage again, leading the wrap-up he gives props to his team: “Let’s hear it for the E Street Horns!”

“That’s good. Yes, yes, yes. I made it up outta nothing.”