The Grateful Dead was before my time yet still have a massive following of fans of all ages. This post isn’t about their music though. I’d like to share my observations of the band, the loyalty of Deadhead enthusiasts and the lessons on leadership and cultivating a positive community in our work environments. Please enjoy with an open mind and feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.
I bought tickets for the Grateful Dead Movie Event to surprise my boyfriend hoping there might be something new for him to enjoy and also for me to gain a better understanding of “the Dead” phenomena that he’s talked about for years. Little did I know that although I didn’t leave with a newly acquired taste for the music, I did leave with a new perspective of the common enigma that is the Grateful Dead. The individual and collective demeanor of the band got my attention relative to leadership and cultures within organizations today. So while watching this movie that was originally filmed in 1977, I couldn’t help but dig for a pen and jot down notes of what I found to be admirable traits that are applicable to businesses and leaders today.
- Humility. Although Jerry Garcia is viewed as the band’s leader, he preferred to simply be a part of the band. While watching the interview with him, there was no sign of an ego, arrogance or personal agenda. I saw someone who was comfortable admitting that he didn’t have all the answers . Garcia had a genuine desire to continually improve his craft and spoke about the personal difficulty of integrating learning with discipline.
- Commitment & building loyalty. The Grateful Dead appreciated and cared about their fans and showed it. Their priority was to build a relationship with their fans by performing more live shows vs. being in a recording studio. They remained focused on the unique style of music that fans were accustomed to which grew their fan base tremendously. There’s a bit of a debate over which rock and roll band has performed the most live shows in history. Based on my research, I can tell you that the Dead is in the top 3 by having performed over 2,300 live shows. Deadheads have been known to follow their tours for months or years on end.
- Giving back. The Dead walked the talk and promoted a sense of community among all Deadheads. They were the first band to perform more free concerts than any band in the history of music. Early in their career, they even dedicated time to their community by providing free food, lodging, music and health care to those who attended their shows.
- Innovation & taking risks. The Dead funneled their money back into their shows and weren’t satisfied with the house sound system at the venues where they played. In 1973 and what seems like a crazy risk at the time, they built a distortion-free sound system called The Wall of Sound which was the largest concert sound system ever built. The technical challenges and transportation challenges they faced with this endeavor nearly bankrupted the band. Knowing what I know now about the band, it makes me wonder if they did this so that the fans outside without tickets could enjoy their shows too! They were also known for their musical improvisation and blending vocals with the goal that each show would be unique. It’s been said that you’d never hear them play the same song in the same way twice. How’s that for flexibility and change?
- Bottom line results from a clear vision. While the Dead never had multi-million dollar album sales or won Grammy Awards from their music, they left an indelible mark on the history of music that is unchallenged to this day. Their mission and vision of maintaining satisfied fans was a steady one. When the Rolling Stones were charging $100 and upward for a concert ticket, the Dead capped their ticket price at $30. The Dead’s steadfast loyalty to their fans created a reciprocity that grew their fan base from their inception in 1964 and even after Garcia’s death in 1995. I read that Grateful Dead Productions currently generates a revenue of $60 million each year in sales and licensing fees.
The takeaway that I had after this movie and from further reading is that the Dead created a win-win environment for their fans and their business. There was no greed or pretentiousness. They did their job well, accepted their fans and treated them well. I know that leadership and business can be more complex than those few sentences but I also like to think that a little common sense can go a long way in our corporate world.
Don’t be a collector of more than you need, got a lot of things growing, but keep watching your seeds. – Grateful Dead, One Thing To Try