Neil Young performs at Hyde Park on July 12, 2019 (Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns)
Neil Young’s leadership would be worth studying under any circumstance. As we seek a path through this global pandemic, however, Young’s work, passion and success deserve our full attention now.
Take any one of the following leadership lessons to heart and you will endure this crisis. Follow them all, and you will not merely endure. You will prevail.
Find distinctive ways of keeping in touch with your customers
LAKE HUGHES, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 14: Neil Young performs in Lake Hughes, California at a benefit … [+]
For weeks Young has been giving his fans a delightful gift: free videos of new solo performances at his home. Directed by his wife, Daryl Hannah and dubbed “Fireside Sessions” (because they’re recorded by an outdoor fire pit), these intimate videos keep Young connected to his supporters in a direct, emotional way.
The Fireside Sessions stand in sharp contrast to the dry, boring emails I’ve been getting from some of the companies I do business with as a customer. They are detailed missives purportedly from the CEO (but probably written by someone else), and I haven’t read a single one all the way through. They come across as a form of legal self-protection rather than sincere communications from one human being to another.
Joey Coleman, a business consultant who specializes in customer retention, would call the first kind of communication B2C (”business to consumer”) and the second kind H2H (”human to human”). I’ll take H2H over B2C any day, and I’ll bet your customers would, too.
If you’re not keeping in touch with your customers now, why not? If you are, which model are you using: Neil Young’s or the corporate-speak monologues cluttering your email inbox?
Lead like Neil Young. Stay connected with your customers authentically.
Incorporate what you’re seeing and feeling into your work
Neil Young | Francis Specker/Bloomberg News
Leaders pay close attention to the world around them. Then they incorporate what they see, hear and feel into their work. Neil Young is a master at this. In response to the 1991 Gulf War and the disturbing images in the news about it, Young went on tour and turned up the volume. Way up.
“It blew my head off during that tour,” Young says in Johnny Rogen’s Zero to Sixty: A Critical Biography. “When we were playing that stuff, it was intense. It was real. I could see people dying in my mind. I could see bombs falling, buildings collapsing on families.” (I learned about this from Bryan Wawzenek’s insightful article on UltimateClassicRock.com.)
The result of Young’s tour was Weld, one of the great live albums in rock history. Its companion album, Arc, is a fascinating sonic patchwork of feedback, guitar noises and vocal fragments from the performances.
Young transformed what he saw in the news into indelible works of art. What are you experiencing now that you can incorporate into what you do?
Lead like Neil Young. Take what’s happening in the world now and use it to powerful ends in your work.
Accept the consequences of being bold
Neil Young performs at Farm Aid on Randall’s Island in New York, on September 9, 2007. New York … [+]
Actions have consequences, and ethical leaders take responsibility for the consequences of their bold actions. Young didn’t shy away from playing at peak volume during the 1991 tour. I recall him saying at the time that he wanted to do more than simply hear the music. He wanted to feel it.
Feel it he and the audience did, to the point that it affected Young’s hearing. Young told Mojo in 1995, “I made Harvest Moon because I didn’t want to hear any loud sounds. I still have a little bit of tinnitus but fortunately now I’m not as sensitive to loud sounds as I was for a year after the mixing of Weld.”
Young accepted the consequences of being bold and, in a different vein, made another masterpiece. Harvest Moon is the Young album I listen to more than any other.
Lead Like Neil Young. Be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions. Doing so may lead you to something spectacular.
Have the highest standards possible and live by them
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Let’s talk money. All things being equal, would you rather have a nickel or a dollar? Now let’s consider your favorite recorded music. Would you rather hear 5% of it or all of it?
Let’s assume that you would prefer to hear music the way it was originally recorded rather than a faint impression of it. Did you know that MP3 files, used by most streaming services, deliver less than 5% of the sound that was recorded?
Neil Young knows it. And it troubles him so much that he has devoted years to figuring out how to deliver recorded music that sounds as close as possible to the way the artists made it. He is also committed to making such high-resolution recordings affordable.
He details this rocky but ultimately successful journey in the book he wrote with Phil Baker, To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio. This book should be required reading in business schools as an example of what can happen when you won’t take no for an answer in the pursuit of excellence.
Lead like Neil Young. Pursue the highest possible standards in your work.
Keep going and going and going
I made this point when I wrote about Bob Dylan’s leadership. With the intense anxiety that so many of us are feeling now, this leadership lesson is especially relevant today, and Neil Young is the perfect embodiment of it.
Go to Neil Young Archives and open the virtual cabinet that houses his life’s work. What do you see? A steady stream of music dating back to 1963. Almost sixty years later, Young continues to write, record and tour (among many other things). This year is among his most productive ever.
In the song “Can’t Stop Workin’,” from his 2016 album Peace Trail, Young sings about both the upside and downside to his work ethic: “I can’t stop workin’ cause I like to work / When nothing else is going on / It’s bad for the body but it’s good for the soul / Might even keep me breathing when I lose control.”
Lead like Neil Young. Don’t stop. Go. (But maybe not at the expense of your health.)
Focus on your customers and forget the rest
Now more than ever, focus on your customers
I couldn’t believe my AirPods when I got to this section of the audiobook version of Feel the Music:
I hesitate to push my music down everyone’s throats. I would like to present my music to the people who love it, so they can hear it at its best. That makes me feel good because these people supported my life and music for more than fifty years. This is payback from me to them.
Some music industry insiders tried to convince Young to broaden the appeal of his website. It would be much more lucrative, they argued. He refused to do so. Imagine that: placing a higher value on satisfying your core customers than on enriching yourself.
It turns out, however, that being deeply committed to your art doesn’t necessarily mean losing money. Young is both artistically and financially successful, and this is a direct result of his commitment to his fans. Art/commerce, Young shows, is not an either/or proposition. It is both/and.
Lead like Neil Young. Know who your customers are and focus like a laser on giving them value.
Build your legacy—now
Why wait another day to build your legacy?
“Sunday is a time for reading and reflection” intoned Harvard Law School professor Charles Kingsfield in an episode of the TV series The Paper Chase. The pandemic we’re in now is also the perfect time to build your legacy the way Neil Young has.
Young wanted to make all of his music, from 1963 to today, available in one place. He also wanted, per our earlier discussion, to ensure that it was presented in the best possible format. He realized that dream a few years ago with the Neil Young Archives. You don’t have to pay anything to hear some of it, but for diehard fans like your humble correspondent, a double sawbuck will get you a year’s subscription to the whole kit and kaboodle.
If Neil Young dies tomorrow, his life’s work will still be here, all of it in an easily accessible location. What are you doing to preserve your legacy?
Lead like Neil Young. Don’t wait another day to ensure that your life’s work will be readily available to serve others.
For further reading
Bryan Wawzenek, “When Neil Young and Crazy Horse Got Noisy on ‘Arc-Weld’”, UltimateClassicRock.com (This article is the source of Young’s quotations in the first two leadership lessons.)
Joey Coleman, Never Lose a Customer Again: Turn Any Sale into Lifelong Loyalty in 100 Days (Portfolio, 2018)
Neil Young and Phil Baker, To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio (BenBella Books, 2019)
Neil Young, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (Plume, 2013)