Roadies and Rock Stars

Neil Young in concert. (Photo courtesy of Man Alive!/Flickr Creative Commons)

Neil Young performing in concert. (Photo courtesy of Man Alive!/Flickr Creative Commons)

Last Saturday Neil Young and Crazy Horse performed at Seattle’s Key Arena.

Young may be old enough for senior discounts, but the dude can rock.

Hunched over his guitar with his legs spread wide, his hair flew wildly and eyes stayed mostly closed. Periodically, he stomped his boot on the wah pedals at the base of his microphone while clawing at the strings as if willing everything louder. Over two hours and one encore later, I still could not get enough.

But I didn’t only have eyes for the rock star. I was particularly interested in the roadies.

Why the roadies?

It wasn’t their white lab coats or hard hats and reflective vests—though the theatricality was charming. Nope. I watched the roadies because they set the stage for rock stars to shine. This tied directly to a concept I had unveiled a week earlier to my MCDM students taking Leadership in the Digital Age: Establishing Authenticity Through Story.

We were discussing how to motivate those you lead: how different incentives motivate certain people, the role of story in motivation, and which platforms are best to craft and share such stories. One of my key messages to the class that day was a concept I formed in the summer while prepping the course syllabus: Great leaders treat their roadies like rock stars.

Roadies play a crucial role in the success rock stars enjoy while on tour. Roadies are responsible for setting up and taking down every instrument, speaker, and microphone on the stage.  Their intensely physical jobs are, for the most part, invisible to the audience, as much of their work happens before the arenas fill and then after they empty. No one gives them a standing ovation. No one asks for their autograph. Turnover in the roadie ranks is high.

But before a rock god like Neil Young can walk out on the stage and thrill me, his roadies have to deliver.  Therefore, it is in his best interest to make his roadies feel part of something bigger than their specific job. A rock star with devoted roadies – and fans for that matter – is one who builds a community around a concert. The thunderous applause is shared, no matter who is on the stage at the time.

And so it is in organizations too. Certain roles provide behind-the-scenes support with little recognition from the organization—let alone the public. But here is where leaders have an opportunity to reveal their greatness. Make your roadies feel like rock stars, and they will achieve and contribute beyond their expectations and your own. This in turn produces customers who will leave your show singing your praises the entire ride home.

Much of my course focuses on evolving organizational cultures of the 21st century organization. Robert Safian of Fast Company writes in one of the course’s assigned articles, “The Secret of Generation Flux,” that in today’s world of pervasive communication technologies and engagement strategies, organizations must balance competing needs for both hierarchy and agility, as well as command-and-control and openness.

Rock concerts have parallels in this regard. Even with consistent playlists, equipment checks, and set design pieces, each night presents new challenges as shows move from one city to the next. Roadies must operate with a certain degree of technical mastery that requires clear communication channels and chain-of-command, while maintaining flexibility in the face of new environments and new audiences.

Roadies set the stage, rock stars perform on it.  If both hit their marks, their fans will still be singing along far longer than the concert set list.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world…

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