3 Leadership Lessons From Janis Joplin

by | Jan 8, 2014

Yes, you read that correctly: Leadership lessons from Janis Joplin. I know. I’m surprised, too. My husband and I, along with several friends, saw “One Night with Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I never expected a lesson in leadership from a make-believe Janis Joplin concert. Right off the bat let me be clear – I barely remember Janis Joplin, and growing up with a band director, Lt Colonel for a father, Janis Joplin’s music was never going to come within a mile of our house. I’d be hard pressed to name a single Janis Joplin song – until that night’s performance. So I’m not here to glorify her, her music or her lifestyle. But I do want to share the unexpected leadership lessons.

Janis grew up as a misfit until she found her niche – singing the blues. Lots of people find music but she felt it more keenly – or maybe she allowed herself to feel it more. In an interview with Dick Cavett he asked what she was thinking as she performed. She said, “I’m not really thinking. I’m just trying to feel.” And feel she did. Her feelings burst through in her performances with raw and tangible emotion. On stage was perhaps the place where she could be most authentic.

Today, much is written about the need for leaders to be authentic. In my research on the role of intuition in leadership I find that leaders from all backgrounds are self-aware, know their values, and align their behaviors with their values. It creates authenticity. It’s safe to say that those leaders “feel” the connection between who they are as a person and who they are as a leader. And, they communicate it with less screaming than Janis’ vocals.

The most striking lesson is commitment. When Janis performed, she Committed – with a capital C. There was no doubt that everything inside her was left on the stage and in the lap of the audience. Janis said, “If I hold back, I’m no good. I’d rather be good sometimes, than holding back all of the time.”

Bravo for her. Hard for most of us. And, I think, hard for her, too. We underestimate what it takes to be that committed. For any artist who has painted a work of art, written a book, recited poetry, or acted in a play (or written a blog about Janis Joplin) – it takes courage to put yourself on display for everyone to see. Most of us hedge – we try a little bit, test the waters; or monitor others’ reactions. What would your leadership be like if you were committed with a capital C; if you weren’t hedging, camouflaging, and ooching along?

Here’s the thing about commitment, it leaves you vulnerable. I watched the performer who played Janis Joplin (and later the videos of the real Janis) sing her heart out – literally. Both of them made it clear that a performance is not something detached from you – it is you. Whether you wish it or not, you open yourself to commentary and dissection. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In Brené Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly.” She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. In her research she asks people how vulnerability feels. Answers included:
• Going out on a limb- a very, very high limb.
• It feels like fear, every single time.
• Being all in.

Being all in leaves us open to vulnerability and that is scary. I feel the fear just thinking about it. Janis must have, too, but there was something inside her that made her prefer opening herself with every song than to play to others’ approval. Part of being a leader is finding the courage to act in spite of the vulnerability. Brené talks about her feelings of vulnerability as she stepped onto the TED stage. She said to herself, “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

What would authentic, committed and vulnerable leadership look like?
• More audacious; less wary.
• More willing to trust yourself; less hedging.
• More willing to try, fail, and try; less worried about what “should” be done.

Janis didn’t hedge; she wasn’t wary and she certainly didn’t worry about the “shoulds.” When I think back on my own leadership behaviors, I can’t say the same. I hedged, ooched and worried. I wore the armor of caution and others’ approval, and – I don’t think I’m alone.

I could have done better. So what about your leadership? What kind of leader is inside hoping to be set free? What would it be like to go out there tomorrow and do the thing you know needs to be done; the thing you’d do if you were all in; the thing you’d do if there was no fear? What if you just stepped up and did it?

Let’s lead like Janis sang – authentic, committed and vulnerable. It’s about being all in. If she were here, she’d say, “Oh! Yeah, man!”


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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