If you haven’t heard, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
While I do love a lot of Dylan songs, I can’t say I’m his biggest fan. But as a leadership development coach I have to admire his perseverance, his tenacity, his creative output, his resilience, confidence, and ability to change with the times.
Businesses, especially struggling ones, can learn a lot from Bob Dylan. I think back to businesses like Kodak, AOL, and Blockbuster, all of whom were too limited and stuck in their ways to change.
Here’s what businesses and leaders can learn from Bob Dylan:
Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, but this didn’t suit him so he changed it. In a 2004 interview, Dylan said of his name change, “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
For most of us, it feels uncomfortable to step into a new persona, a new role, or a new identity. Will people buy into us? Will we even buy into us? That’s where confidence comes in, not just in yourself, but also in the belief that life is mutable, that you hold the keys to your future.
This is also a key factor in resilience: the belief that you control your fate.
Dylan isn’t the only one who successfully changed his name. Here are some other examples:
BackRub » Google
Confinity » PayPal
Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web » Yahoo
Sound of Music » Best Buy
Research in Motion » Blackberry
Brad’s Drink » Pepsi-Cola
Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo » Sony
AuctionWeb » eBay
2. Find your niche.
Dylan found rock music inspiring but limited in terms of poetic expression. Woody Guthrie was his idol. He dropped out of college, moved to NYC, and started hanging around folk musicians in Greenwich Village.
He picked up songs, the sound, and from there he developed his voice.
He has been criticized of appropriating songs and sounds of those he hung around with, but he clearly knew how to make them his own.
3. Redefine the standards for quality.
Dylan’s voice is not conventionally beautiful but it is now one of the most iconic voices in history.
Sure, he wouldn’t win on the show, The Voice, but that’s what sets him apart. He can’t be duplicated and he redefined beauty.
Google, Craigslist, and eBay are a few sites that aren’t the most beautiful websites out there but are certainly among the most used. The Prius isn’t the shapeliest car but you get a lot of mileage from one tank of gas.
4. Willingness to Reinvent Yourself.
At the height of Dylan’s career as a folk icon he abandoned his acoustic guitar and went electric. This infuriated his fan loyal fan base. When their idol went electric they were left to figure out whom they were on their own. How dare he.
It takes a lot of guts to go in a different direction when you are already successful. Dylan’s desire to change seemed to come purely out of boredom and the desire for something new. It served him well and expanded his fan base.
Businesses rarely reinvent themselves when what they are doing is working, but many businesses rarely reinvent themselves when what they are doing isn’t working either. Some examples of successful reinvention are:
Old Spice was losing in the Men’s Deodorant category until its hip 2006 ad campaign boosted them. They are now in the top of the category.
KFC wasn’t doing well with millennials. They went back to creating more chicken-selling holidays and revamped their menu for millennials who want to eat less and on the go.
National Geographic was losing subscribers in the 1990s. CEO John Fahey created the National Geographic channel with successful reality shows.
Lego nearly went bankrupt in 2004 due to the rise of internet games. With newsletters, competitions, and contests it managed to stay relevant with its youthful customer base.
Despite the many hundreds of Dylan tunes that were published there are probably just as many that have never been released. He doesn’t stop writing, recording, and playing. The fire has not died out and he is seventy-five years old.
This is a great model for a business or leader. Age doesn’t matter, it’s what drives you that matters. If you keep your creative passion alive you can keep moving forward. Apple could have stopped at computers and it would have been enough to make them legendary, but they kept going, they kept creating.
Dylan’s persona is difficult to crack. He was a notoriously difficult interviewee. In the ‘60s he was argumentative with reporters, gave cryptic answers, and evade questions altogether.
It never hurts to have an air about you that leaves people wanting more. It’s a balancing act between transparency and mystery, accessibility and inaccessibility. Case in point: As of today, 10/19, the Nobel committee hasn’t been able to get a hold of him.
As a leader, you don’t have to be everyone’s best friend to lead effectively with charisma, charm, and empathy. A healthy distance won’t hurt you. It’s when you’re all distance and no warmth that your leadership gets polluted.
Dylan was very concerned with playing with the right musicians for the right sound and the right contributions. Vibe meant a lot, as did playing with the best. He knew when you have the right team you get the product you want.
He’s collaborated with The Band, The Traveling Wilburys, Johnny, Cash, Joan Baez, Victoria’s Secret, and of course all of the musicians on his albums.
As a leader, when you want to make something great you need to put a great team together.
Surrounding yourself with the right people improves the quality of your project and potentially creates something new that you would never have come up with on your own.
Dylan is a great example of someone who never confined himself to status quo thinking. He never relegated himself to “this is how it’s always been done, so I’ll keep it this way.” Rather, he kept saying, “what if it were done this way?”
He’s also not for everyone. Not everyone is a Dylan fan. Not everyone likes his voice. He could easily have changed his ways in the interest of appealing to a larger audience (though the audience is rather large as it is) but he stuck to his guns.
That’s a good lesson for leaders: do you.