“The Boss” Is the Boss
Written by: Bert A. Spector
Bert Spector on Bruce Springsteen and leadership.
There are many reasons to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s mesmerizing new memoir, Born to Run. One that I found especially fascinating was his candid, insightful view of leading the rock group that has been his musical spine for decades, the E Street Band.
When he was just in his early 20s, Springsteen developed a philosophy of how to run a rock band. After some experience as a member of two earlier groups, Springsteen was determined that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would not be run as a democracy. His vision was rather, to use his own term, a “benevolent dictatorship.” He was determined to build a band, and a career, that lasted; one that did not implode, tear itself apart, and go its separate ways. The Beatles served as one very prominent counter-example. Springsteen and the band would be built to last, and he accepted – reluctantly at times, but resolutely always – his leadership role in assuring that longevity.
Throughout the memoir, Springsteen highlights just what his role was. As the boss, he focused on four key spheres of action:
- Recruitment – Getting the right people in the band and, occasionally, uncomfortably, the wrong people out, was vital. He was not after the “best players” but the “right players” to be part of the band.
- Discipline – Get the music right, give your all every night. These were the requirements accepted by the leadership and expected of all members. “People always asked me how the band played like it did night after night, almost murderously consistent, NEVER stagnant.” Recruiting musicians who loved what they doing was part of that. But, unabashedly he insisted, “I MADE them” do their best. His interaction with Jake Clemons, as he stepped into the big shoes of his late Uncle Clarence, made clear the requirement not just for commitment, but also preparation, promptness, and respect for the job, for fellow bandmates, and for the audience.
- Role clarity – The creative force for the band and its music would come, indisputably, from Springsteen himself. Not that he didn’t take input, feedback, and critique from band members. But each had a clearly assigned role with creative control in the hands of one person. There were certainly tensions, occasional chaffing, and even some hurt feelings (Little Steven temporarily left the band when he felt that his own role was being diminished). But everyone was clear and committed, and in the end, the band stayed together and performed an extraordinarily high levels for decades.
- Vision and hard work – Mostly, Springsteen had a clear vision of what he needed to achieve. “I wanted the singular creative and decision-making power of a solo artist, but I also wanted the live, rambunctious gang feeling only a real rock ‘n’ roll band can deliver.” To make that a reality, Springsteen relied not so much on the “magic in the night” but on hard work – lots of it – clarity of purpose, high expectations of excellence, and, always, more hard work.
I reviewed many leadership memoirs for Discourse on Leadership. Springsteen has inadvertently but unequivocally enhanced that body of literature.
 Springsteen, B. (2016). Born to Run. New York: Simon & Schuster.