Something Bigger (Leadership Lessons from the Grateful Dead) by Mike Shereck

I recently had the opportunity to see The Dead and Company play at the Shoreline Theater in Mountain View,  California.  This was so cool in so many ways.  First and foremost, spending a cool star lit evening in a park like setting in the Bay Area in early July lives in the realm of “not sucking.” Add in “The Dead”, on their home turf, in an arena built specifically for them and doing so with a new colleague, client, friend, and fellow “Dead Appreciator” made it all that much more awesome.  

Seeing “The Dead” or what ever version that is available has become a nearly annual ritually for me for the last many years.  My first “Dead Show” was at Northern Illinois University in October of 1977.  41 years later and 44 more shows, I believe I enjoy them more now than back in the halcyon years of my youth.  The funny thing is I enjoy all the versions of the band, of course the Grateful Dead is the source of the experience, but I have also seen, The Jerry Garcia Band, Phil Lesch and Friends, Rat Dog, Further, The Micky Hart Experience, The Other Ones, and I saw the 5Oth show at Soldier Field with Trey playing the role of Jerry.  I saw Jerry’s last show at Soldier Field while I was working at IMTS. (A strange collaborations of experiences I must say) . The point of this is I enjoy the music and experience, and the real point is, my experience a few weeks ago at The Shoreline was beyond all the others.  

Let me create a bit of context for you.  Who I am is a coach, an executive coach, a person who is a stand for leadership in a world in transition.  It is a great job, and I believe an essential one in the world we live in.  What does that have to do with “The Dead?”  Great freaking question!  

The Dead is an enterprise and the various versions of it,  has operated in a market place that has gone through massive change both culturally and technologically.  Not only have they survived, they have thrived and grown.  Consistently, what ever version of “The Dead” is touring and currently it is “The Dead and Company”, they are one of the highest grossing acts of the year.   Not only are they great at generating revenue, their customer/consumers/clients are to say the least, RAVING FANS and some of the most loyal people you will ever meet.  People travel far and wide to “See the Dead”.  So as it relates to you and me, I believe it is very interesting that there is an entity that began as a start up, in an era of change, grew and became a sustainable and ongoing enterprise, withstood the challenges of cultural and technological change and is still thriving.  Add in the death of several key and founding members include the one founder who’s identity exemplified the band, he for all intents and purposes WAS the brand, and one has to asked themselves, how did they do this?  

That is what this piece is about, what it is that has “The Dead’ be the dead.  The first place I looked was the phenomenon of when other folks join the band they seem to give up their identity.  There have been a number of brilliant and talented people play with them, and no one denies they are playing.  Winton Marsellis, Chris Robinson, Joan Osborn, Bruce Hornsby, and currently John Mayer to name a few.  A funny thing happened when they played with the Dead, they became part of the band.  They were still themselves yet they integrated into the band, and the band then had a completely new experience, sound, and look, yet the music was every bit as enjoyable.  How often do you deal with bringing in new people into your organization, especially exceptionally talented ones, who have their own ideas, ways of operating and getting stuff done,  and have a challenge with making it work?  I have seen that be a challenge.  Especially in the day of increasing demands from our clients and pressure from changes in the market place.   So, how do they do it?  Truly WTF?  

There is a pull to say, it is just music, they are a bunch of pot smoking hippies, who are avoiding life, or this does not really matter.  If that is your position, ok, and what I see is an ongoing global entity that generates 8 to 9 figures in revenue year after year for over 5o years, employs hundreds of people and serves millions of customers in a way few have.  What I see is a devout customer base that seeks them out, and intense loyalty amounts not only the members and crew, but he associates and outsource partners.  Add in there is virtually nary a scandal about them except for the occasional drug overdose that seemed to plague them at one point in time and now seem to be a thing of the past.  (Great organizations have their issues too)

There is a distinction in the Being A Leader course lead by Werner Erhard, Mike Jenson and Steve Zafron called, “Being Given Being and Action by Something Greater than Oneself”. The definition is as follows:

Being Given Being and Action by Something Bigger than Oneself: Source of the serene passion (charisma) required to lead and to develop others as leaders and the source of persistence (joy in the labor of) when the path gets tough. The source of of serene passion, and the source of persistent joy.  

Wow, who does not want that?  Something bigger than them is at the source of what they are up to.  If you listen to what Bobby Weir has said about this, it is amazing, I invite you to check out his interview.  For Bobby it is the music, the music is bigger than him and what the music represents is a divine connection to all living things.   

The most remarkable evidence of this is, I assert, the integration of John Mayer into being a key member of “The Dead and Company”.  John Mayer being a named member is huge.  The other three guys are all originals,  the base player and key board play are part of the band but they are not in “Dead and Company” .  This is the equivalent of Ronnie Wood being a member of the Stones.   

John Mayer who was most famous for breaking Taylor Swifts heart, and for singing obnoxious songs about running through his high school has transformed himself to be a member of “Dead and Company”.  The only way he could do that was to let go of his ego, his identity, and continue to use his incredible talent to fulfill on the intention Bobby Weir shared,  the music represents a divine connection to all living things.  And when you see John Mayer play, the experience I had was the intention was fulfilled.  It was very cool. 

I assert we all have that higher purpose in us.  The Dead is not an exceptionally talented band.  What they are is a group of humans who are clear on what they are here for.  They are clear on the value they provide, they are clear on their limits and most of all, clear on what they value.  The result of that clarity seems to be a sustainable ongoing enterprise that has raving fans as customers.  Isn’t that something we would all love to have? 

Authenticity: The Secret Sauce