11 Songs That Inspire Today’s Leaders
We often learn about books that inspire leadership, but what about music? Songs are at least as influential as books, and they can pack more of an emotional wallop.
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 hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ is one song I keep coming back to through my life. With so much death surrounding us now, I hear the tune far too often. But it brings a sense of closure. My favorite version is from Coal Miner's Daughter when Levon Helms, formerly of The Band, sings it a capella in his beautiful, ragged, ravaged voice. You don't have to be religious to be moved deeply by this song.
“My other favorite for these uncertain times is by Bill Withers, ‘Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone.’ It raises such a palpable sense of deep loss but somehow leaves me feeling that I can go on in the world, no matter how dark it may become.”
Janet A. Aker, Senior writer, Health.mil, The Defense Health Agency
“I have always found inspiration in Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune.’ I understand that it is a bleak and depressing song, but I take a couple of things from it that I use a lot. First, the good old days really weren’t always good nor even perceived as good at the time. Fighting against the pull of nostalgia is important to me. If you hold onto the past, you are less open to the future. Second, there are a lot of people out there who have a tough life, who are low on or without hope. I am blessed. What is my responsibility to those people?"
David A. Chapman, Professor and Finance Area 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, featuring the lyrics, ‘Should I paint my face / Should I pierce my skin / Does this make me a pagan / Sweating out my sin,’ remind me of my younger conflict of being Native and 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 / It means you'll never lose your way back home,’ remind me that my family/ancestors are in my heart, and they’re never too far away.”
Barbara Olivier, Owner, Balasana Barbara Yoga
“Wake Up Everybody”
“’Wake Up Everybody’ makes me want to get back to work. As a teacher, hearing Teddy Pendergrass sing ‘Wake up all you teachers, 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 on the ongoing struggle for civil rights and justice, the song that most inspires me is Janelle Monáe's ‘Turntables.’ From Emma Goldman to George Clinton to Monáe, revolutionaries have reminded us that music and dancing give us energy to keep fighting for justice despite frustration. The vitality of Monáe's beat and the force of her words bring restorative energy in discouraging times: "I keep my hands dirty, my mind clean/Got a new agenda with a new dream./I'm kickin' out the old regime/Liberation, elevation, education ... The tables 'bout to turn.”
Jonathan Gilligan, Associate Professor of Earth & 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 loved this song but the meaning of it became richer to me on a humanitarian deployment to El Salvador in 1998/99. It also came to mind in Iraq and Afghanistan as we worked with the people. As soldiers, our hearts and minds constantly strive for a balance between the best and worst of humanity. When we can provide comfort, learning, aid, and most of all a smile, every note of Louis’ gravelly voice reminds me of the beauty of life.”
James M. Stephens, Colonel, U.S. Army
“Walk on the Wild Side”
“’Walk on the Wild Side’ came out two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, and I bought the 45 with cash that relatives stuffed into my jacket at the reception, before my folks deposited the rest ‘for the future.’ Lying on our backs in my deep-pile bedroom carpet, my Yeshiva friends and I parsed the song with Talmudic rigor: ‘Holly came from Miami, F.L.A./Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A./Plucked her eyebrows on the way/Shaved her legs and then he was a she.’ What came through was Lou Reed’s warm affection and admiration for people who were different than him (and me). I was just thirteen, cloistered, and what I got from the song is that the world contains all sorts of people, and therein lies its wonder.”
Noah Efron, Chair, Graduate Program in Science, Technology & Society, Bar Ilan University, Israel
“Lean On Me”
“One song that moved me even as a 12-year-old was ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers. Fifty years still later, I reflect on the lyrics in the context of a seemingly more polarized society, one which can make many feel isolated or disconnected. This song reminds me of the importance of supporting and encouraging family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, many of whom are going through some tough challenges. When we provide a shoulder to lean on, life is richer, and we make a positive impact on 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... / For it won't be long / Till I'm gonna need somebody to lean on.’”
Bart Robins, CPCU, Sales Director, The Travelers Companies, Inc.
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
“The song ‘Even If It Breaks Your Heart’ by the Eli Young Band has the lines, ‘Some dreams stay with your forever / Drag you around but bring you back to where you were / Some dreams keep on getting’ better / Gotta keep believing if you wanna 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 fact that we may fail and have our hearts broken.”
Bobby D. Butler, Jr., Global Manager, International Trade Compliance, Indorama Ventures Oxides, LLC
"I get inspired by Miley Cyrus's song 'The Climb.' It was from her Hannah Montana days, and it can come off as cheesy. However, I love the idea of enjoying the journey, versus just the final destination: 'There's always gonna be another mountain / I'm always gonna wanna make it move / Always gonna be an uphill battle / Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose / Ain't about how fast I get there / Ain't about what's waiting on the other side / It's the climb.'"
Travis Linneweber, Associate Vice President for Finance, Administration, & Auxilliaries, DePauw University
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