Lyrical Wisdom: Leadership Lessons from Bob Dylan

104712711Few artists have had as big an impact on art and culture, both American and beyond, as Bob Dylan. Whether it’s his legendary musical career that continues to inspire singers and songwriters more than five decades after the release of his first album or the way his body of work helped define a generation of social change, it’d be hard to believe Dylan hasn’t learned a thing or two about leadership along the way.

You better start swimming or sink like a stone, cause the times they are a-changing. – The Times They Are A-Changin’
Written as a commentary on the ongoing social unrest during the 1960s, this is one of Dylan’s most famous songs. And though its original message is grounded in the politics and civil rights issues of the decade, its lyrics can easily be applied as a warning to be heeded by anyone in an influential leadership position. The pace of business is only accelerating, and without a forward thinking leader who is willing to adapt to the changing trends, even a strong company risks sinking like a stone.

If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself. – Trust Yourself
From Dylan’s 23rd studio album, Trust Yourself is a song about doing just that – trusting your instincts. Great leadership requires confidence. A workforce will rally behind a leader who truly believes in the company and what it’s capable of achieving. More often than not, it’s the fickle leader who loses the faith of their employees, which can deal a devastating blow to employee engagement and productivity.

May you always be courageous, stand upright, and be strong. – Forever Young
Originally appearing on the 1974 album, Planet Waves, Forever Young was written as a blessing from parent to child. But the meaning behind its lyrics is sage advice that can be just as applicable in the workplace. In every decision, big or small, a courageous leader will always choose honesty over deceit. And nothing builds loyalty among employees better than a leader who can always be trusted to do what’s right.

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. – Like A Rolling Stone
In Like a Rolling Stone, Dylan sings the plight of “Mrs. Lonely,” a woman who once had it easy but is now forced to fend for herself. In the workplace, however, this scenario can be more aptly applied to a major project gone wrong. You may have started out with the best of intentions, a solid plan, and all the right people helping you along the way, but obstacles and road blocks have derailed progress and caused commitment to wane. At this point, when you’ve got nothing to lose, your best option may be an outside-the-box, “Hail Mary” strategy – and hope for the best.

I believe in you, even though I be outnumbered. – I Believe In You
Blind faith and unwavering support is the theme of this song, and as a leader, it’s often necessary to put your own reputation on the line to stand behind those you lead. Taking the path of least resistance only stifles creativity and your employees won’t waste their time with forward thinking if they don’t believe you’ll be there to support them. Some of the greatest advancements in history were put in motion by a giant leap of faith.

While the name Bob Dylan is far from synonymous with success in business, there is inspiration to be found between the lines of many of his greatest hits. As long as you’re open to receiving the message, you can find motivation in many of the things you surround yourself with every day. You just have to listen.

10 Responses to Lyrical Wisdom: Leadership Lessons from Bob Dylan

  1. Bruce Varney January 23, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    “You got to serve somebody” from Slow Train Coming. Despite this song’s profound sprirtual and religious overtones it serves to reminder us that our enterprise has little purpose if it doesn’t serve somebody and that somebody is our customer, our client, our employee, or anybody else that has a stake in what we do. Like it or not, we all serve somebody.

  2. Prof K N Walia January 23, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    A truly productive mind selects inspiring leads in popular songs!

  3. Harald Forrest January 23, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now: It urges us to always be curious, always keep learning and not take ourselves more seriously than we should. From “My Back Pages”, Bob Dylan’s 4th album ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’

  4. Andy Lake January 24, 2012 at 8:05 am #

    I guess we leave out from this collection “Take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind” (Mr Tambourine Man) and “Everybody must get stoned” (Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35) … though I guess there are various ways for leaders to come up with new and creative ideas

  5. Mike January 24, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Bob Dylan led without really trying, but by being true to himself and his vision. Many people have tried to make him into what they want him to be, something he has always rejected. The truth of his music is what led to wisdom we can take away from the songs, for truth and wisdom are one and the same.

  6. Refresh Leadership January 27, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. DJ June 15, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    extremely good post, i certainly really like this incredible internet site, keep on it

  8. Refresh Leadership January 27, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    And I would agree with your brother! But I don’t think it’s a bad practice. People are more apt to remember a favorite song lyric to which they have applied their own interpretation than a random quote that doesnt’ have any kind of personal connection.

    Great comment! And thanks for sharing!


  1. Silicon Alley Roundup: Leadership lessons and Airbnb on the rise | Scott Poniewaz - January 27, 2012

    […] •My brother argues that anyone could pull lyrics out of context and apply them to leadership, or anything under the sun for that matter, however as someone that has gone on tour through the midwest in high school with Bob Dylan during his county fair tour, I can’t help but share this: “Lyrical Wisdom: Leadership Lessons from Bob Dylan” […]

Leave a Reply