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Pete Seeger – An Authentic Leader

Last week I asked a young manager if he had heard of the musician Pete Seeger. He said, “I think so. I heard one of his songs at a wedding reception I went to. I think it was ‘Old Time Rock n’ Roll’ or something?” I told him that was Bob Seger, no relation to Pete Seeger. I then told him about Pete Seeger, who died a few weeks ago, and how he was an authentic leader.

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Last week I asked a young manager if he had heard of the musician Pete Seeger. He said, “I think so. I heard one of his songs at a wedding reception I went to. I think it was ‘Old Time Rock n’ Roll’ or something?” I told him that was Bob Seger, no relation to Pete Seeger. I then told him about Pete Seeger, who died a few weeks ago, and how he was an authentic leader.

Who was Pete Seeger?

Pete Seeger was a principled and controversial folk musician, who was born in 1919 in New York City. As a child of musicians, he was naturally attracted to music and first loved the ukulele and then the banjo. His father introduced him to the skilled musicians he knew that played Americana music in Asheville, NC and Seeger was forever hooked on what we often call folk music.

During the 1930s Seeger hooked-up with Woody Guthrie and, like hobos, they hitched trains and traveled around the country. Their music attracted audiences of mostly farm workers and general laborers. It was while doing this that Seeger’s awareness of economic injustice grew. He would forever use music to inspire people to stand-up against large, powerful forces that worked against the health and happiness of the individual.

Seeger is best known for such songs as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, and Turn, Turn, Turn. He also introduced the song “We Shall Overcome” to Martin Luther King, Jr., who liked it so much he selected it as the rallying song for the Civil Rights Movement.

An Undesirable

It is hard for Americans today to understand that until the 1960’s if you spoke-out against some of the policies and leaders of government or if you protested in public, you were often arrested, widely criticized, and sometimes labeled an “undesirable.”

In the 1950s Seeger, a peaceful folk singer, who had once been a member of the Communist Party USA, was labeled an undesirable. He was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he was interrogated about his beliefs and opinions he refused to answer because he believed these were protected by the First Amendment. Seeger told them he didn’t have to share his beliefs or opinions with the Committee because he was an American and could believe what he wanted. They charged him with Contempt of Congress and a lower court found him guilty, but seven years later the Supreme Court overruled the decision.

What is unbelievable today was that our government banned him from radio and television for 17 years because he was an “undesirable.” It wasn’t until the very popular Smothers Brothers pushed for him to be on their show, that things changed.

Pete Seeger – The Authentic Leader

I think Seeger is a great example of an “authentic leader.” One who has solid core values and spends his or her life living the values. And, if the values resonate with enough people, an authentic leader can emerge.

Bill George in an article called “Leadership is Authenticity, not Style” published in Business Leadership by John Wiley & Sons, suggests authentic leaders have these five qualities.

  1. Understand their purpose. Seeger understood that his purpose was to use music to unite people to work together to fight against large forces that hurt mankind. His music helped the causes of farm workers, civil rights, worker safety, unnecessary war, toxic waste clean-up, and environmental pollution. Many say he was the leader behind cleaning up the Hudson River.
  2. Practice solid values. Seeger was kind, honest, fair, and courageous. When you read about his life, there are many examples that he consistently practiced these values and others.
  3. Lead with the heart. Stories of Seeger’s compassion are numerous. In one story he met with a man at a concert, who had come to the concert to kill him. The man’s brother had been killed in Vietnam and he was angry with Seeger’s position and songs against the war. After the man met Seeger and understood that Seeger cared about his brother and wanted to reduce the killing, the man broke down and changed his opinion.
  4. Establish close and enduring relationships. Seeger had thousands of life-long relationships that endured. He remained a mentor to many singers like Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, for his whole life.
  5. Demonstrate self-discipline. There are many examples of Seeger’s self-discipline. He was happily married to one woman, Toshi-Aline, for 70 years. He didn’t drink, smoke, or take drugs, which was rare for someone in the music business. He didn’t stay in upscale hotels when he traveled, but sought out friends’ homes or shelters for the poor. The money he made later in life he often gave to social causes he believed in. The list goes on.

Arlo Guthrie once said when Pete came out on stage people rose up and applauded. Not because he was a musician, but because he means something.

And that is an authentic leader.

(If you are interested in watching a video history of Pete’s life, I strongly recommend this PBS American Masters piece.)

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