We often learn from books that inspire leadership, but what about music? Songs are at least as influential as books, and they can hold more emotion.
Here are 11 songs that have influenced leaders from a wide range of fields. Please note that the opinions expressed below are those of the authors and not of their organizations.
“Amazing Grace” and “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”
“The anthem ‘Amazing Grace’ is a song I return to throughout my life. With so many dead people surrounding us now, I hear the melody far too often. But it brings a sense of closure. My version favorite comes from coal miner’s daughter when Levon Helms, formerly of The Band, sings it a capella in his beautiful, raspy, ravaged voice. You don’t have to be religious to be deeply moved by this song.
“My other favorite for these uncertain times is by Bill Withers, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.’ It brings up such a palpable sense of deep loss, but somehow leaves me with the feeling that I can carry on in the world, no matter how dark it may get.
Janet A. Aker, Senior Writer, Health.mil, The Defense Health Agency
“I’ve always found inspiration in Paul Simon’s American Tune. I understand it’s a dark and depressing song, but I take a few things out of it that I use a lot. First, the good old days weren’t always good or even perceived as good back then. Fighting the pull of nostalgia is important to me. If you cling to the past, you are less open to the future. Second, there are many people who have a difficult life, who have little or no hope. I am blessed. What is my responsibility to these people?
David A. Chapman, Professor and Finance Coordinator, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia
“One of the songs that inspires me is ‘Golden Feather’ by Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble, with the lyrics ‘Should I paint my face / Should I pierce my skin / Does that make me a heathen / Sweating my sin’, reminds me of my younger conflict of being native and a Christian. Could I be both? Could I thank Mother Earth and Father Sky, while saying my prayers to God, the Creator of all The song is especially uplifting when I’m homesick. The lines, “And when you find a golden feather / That means you’ll never lose your way home”, reminds me that my family / my ancestors are in my heart and they are never too far away.
Barbara Olivier, Owner, Balasana Barbara Yoga
“Wake Up Everybody”
“’Wake Up Everybody’ makes me want to go back to work. As a teacher, hearing Teddy Pendergrass sing “Wake up all teachers, it’s time to teach a new way” makes me want to be a better teacher.
Ken Schaphorst, Chair, Jazz Studies, New England Conservatory of Music
“This month, as we reflect on black history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights and justice, the song that inspires me the most is Janelle Monáe’s ‘Turntables’. By Emma Goldman to George Clinton to Monáe, revolutionaries have reminded us that music and dance give us the energy to keep fighting for justice despite frustration.The vitality of Monáe’s rhythm and the power of her lyrics bring a restorative energy in discouraging times: “I keep my hands dirty, my mind clean / I have a new agenda with a new dream. / I launch the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education… The tables are on the turning point.
Jonathan Gilligan, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Vanderbilt University
“What a wonderful World”
“One of the most impactful songs for me is Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’. I’ve always liked this song but the meaning became richer to me during a humanitarian deployment in El Salvador in 1998/99. It also came to mind in Iraq and Afghanistan when we were working with people. As soldiers, our hearts and minds constantly strive to find a balance between the best and the worst of humanity. When we can offer comfort, learning, help and above all a smile, every note of Louis’ gravelly voice reminds me of the beauty of life.
James M. Stephens, Colonel, US Army
“Walking on the Wild Side”
”Walk on the Wild Side’ came out two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, and I bought the 45 with money some parents stuffed in my jacket at reception, before my parents dropped off the rest’ for the future.’ Lying on my back on the thick rug in my bedroom, my Yeshiva friends and I analyzed the song with Talmudic rigor: “Holly came from Miami, FLA/hitchhiked across the United States/tweezed her eyebrows on the way/shaved the legs and then it was a her”. What stood out was Lou Reed’s warm affection and admiration for people different from him (and me). I was only thirteen years old, cloistered, and what I took away from the song was that the world contains all kinds of people, and therein lies its wonder.
Noah Efron, Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society, Bar Ilan University, Israel
“Lean on Me”
“One song that moved me even when I was 12 was Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me’. Still fifty years later, I reflect on the lyrics in the context of a seemingly more polarized society, a society that can make many feel isolated or disconnected. This song reminds me of the importance of supporting and encouraging family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, many of whom are going through difficult challenges. When we provide a shoulder to lean on , life is richer and we positively impact at least our small part of this world. And you tend to get what you give many times over. ‘Lean on me / When you’re not strong / And I’ll be your friend / I’ll help you carry on… / ‘Cause it won’t be long / Until I need someone to lean on.’”
Bart Robins, CPCU, Director of Sales, The Travelers Companies, Inc.
“Even if it breaks your heart”
“The Eli Young Band’s song ‘Even If It Breaks Your Heart’ has the lines, ‘Some dreams stay with you forever / Drag you around but take you back to where you were / Some dreams keep getting better / I gotta keep believing if you want to know for sure. The song makes me think about how the last two years with Covid have shown us that life is fragile and tomorrow is not guaranteed. The song motivates me to keep my dreams alive despite the that we risk failing and being heartbroken.
Bobby D. Butler, Jr., Global Director, International Trade Compliance, Indorama Ventures Oxides, LLC
“I’m inspired by the Miley Cyrus song ‘The Climb’. It was during the Hannah Montana era, and it might sound corny. content with the final destination: “There will always be another mountain / I always want to move it”. / It’s always going to be an uphill battle / Sometimes I’m going to have to lose / It’s not about the speed at which I’m getting there / It’s not about what’s waiting on the other side / It’s the climb.
Travis Linneweber, Associate Vice President for Finance, Administration and Auxiliary, DePauw University
What song inspires you? How is it ? Let me know, and I might use it (with your permission) in a future column.