When someone influential dies we often consider their legacy. As a musician, it can be far-reaching. Perhaps they introduced something never heard of before or re-arranged something old into something new. Or possibly their influence extended beyond music, into humanitarian or social issues.
When Tom Petty died recently, his greatest legacy seemed to be his, and the Heartbreakers, longevity. He was an artist for whom fans would say he truly wrote the soundtrack to their lives. Having spanned 40 years in music, film, and television, he’d been described as ‘the last rock star’ – the last of his kind.
Recording with the Heartbreakers, the band he formed in the mid-1970s, and on his own, Mr. Petty wrote pithy, hardheaded songs that gave a contemporary clarity to 1960s roots. His voice was grainy and unpretty, with a Florida drawl that he proudly displayed.
Leadership and Influence
We’ve written previously about the influence of Prince, Bowie – and Beyonce – on music and culture. These are musicians whose impact extends far beyond their fields. Where they have been controversial and pioneering, Petty’s contribution seems to have been less about leadership and more about chronicling his generation’s contradictions. More than once he’s been described as an underdog, under-rated or underestimated. However, he was a musician who reminds us that if leadership is influence, it can come in all shapes and sizes.
The Underdog’s Guide to Leadership
Keep Doing What You’re Doing
Just showing up day in and day out is sometimes all it takes to become the best in your field.
Every musician knows that it’s the unseen commitment to practice and rehearsal that makes the performance so spectacular on the night.
Great leaders are the ones who put in the hours, working smarter, not just harder, persevering through the every day and the ordinary. They are the ones who are in the right place at the right time, ready for something special to happen.
Keep Getting Better
Just doing the same thing all the time, without seeing any change or personal development, is creatively frustrating and ultimately not any kind of leadership at all.
Tom Petty showed that you don’t have to pursue disruption and drama to keep creating something fresh and exciting. Petty’s last few weeks were spent playing live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, seemingly as intimate and engaging as over 30 years ago.
Learning new ways of doing old things, in the midst of a steady persistence in the right direction, is vital for establishing essential leadership skills for uncertain times.
Keep Your Focus
It’s easy to be distracted by those who seem to be running further, faster or higher than you are.
Petty managed to stay in his own lane, doing what he did best whilst others soared and fell alongside him. He pushed himself creatively – releasing solo-albums and even collaborating in the Traveling Wilburys – but seemed comfortable with his limitations too.
Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, which is increasingly a valuable and much sought-after measure of corporate leadership. Being comfortable in your own skin, whilst flexible enough to keep listening and learning, is a vital leadership skill.
Keep Your Friends Close
The Heartbreakers are described as one of the greatest bands in rock and roll history. Remarkably, almost every member of Petty’s original band is still alive. Despite battling heroin, bankruptcy, arson and marriage breakups – some won, some lost – 2016 saw Petty reforming the band, originally known as Mudcrutch,
“Tom is in a position where he could do anything he wants with anyone he wants,” said Heartbreakers/Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell. “The beauty of this is that he wants to reconnect with his old friends, not for money, but the pure joy of revisiting the energy that we started with. It’s been very, very spiritual. It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous.”
Leadership can be lonely but everyone needs a band or an orchestra, a team or a tribe around them. Leaders need people who challenge them, share the highs and the lows, and help them create something greater than they could have ever accomplished on their own.
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