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What Leaders Can Learn from Punk Rock

I love punk rock. It was loud, fast, and trashed authority. I discovered punk in high school. Since then, I’ve become something of an aficionado.

The early punk scene in NYC was as diverse and experimental as anything in the history of music. I’ve collected books about that time as well as several documentaries with early footage of bands including the Ramones, Dead Boys, Television and Blondie.

As a purveyor of advice about professional life, to date I have not found a reason to talk to my audience about punk rock. Until now. I was watching a documentary the other day and a few ideas jumped out at me.

Here are three great lessons for organizational life derived from the history of punk rock.

The DIY Ethic Supports Innovation

Punks were revered for their Do It Yourself abilities. The DIY spirit fueled many aspects of punk culture, perhaps the most noticeable being the punk facade. Before today’s fashion dictated clothing sold at retail already ripped on purpose, there were punks ripping their clothing… just because. Before there were shirts with skull logos on them to be found at major department stores, there were punks using stencils and cans of spray paint. Before there were nicely shaped mohawk hairstyles coiffed in beauty salons, there were punks hacking and shaving in the basement.

Businesses can learn a lot from this DIY culture. For example, one problem many businesses encounter is their unending desire to conduct research prior to making decisions. This suggests prudence, but it is also expensive and, when performed to excess, wastes valuable time. Instead of this analysis paralysis – try stuff!  Try, try, try – and see what happens.

Just like the punks, experiment. Whether an employee policy or a new product – go! Strive for cheap accelerated learning. Don’t worry about failing – the goal is to learn, on the cheap, quickly.

Attitude and Conviction Trump Talent

It’s shocking how much influence punk rock has had on society at large, given how little talent there was in the movement. Sure, there was talent to be found – I’ll take Strummer and Jones over Lennon and McCartny any day.

In general, however, the movement was about attitude, style, conviction, and an unwavering desire to create and express. The Sex Pistols couldn’t play their instruments in the beginning. Hardly anyone could! Nor could they sing. Joey Ramone is one of the most iconic front men ever, yet he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Talent is awesome, but punk proved it’s often overemphasized. Success is determined by a host of variables, not just one. Companies need to remember this when hiring. You very often see firms hiring solely on talent. They find a person with strong capabilities in their given area and they hire based on the strength of the capabilities.

Unfortunately, they fail to spend as much time thinking about and assessing the person’s attitude, personality, work ethic, and character. Who is this candidate as a person? Do they truly want to work here? How will they mesh with the team?

When you ask questions like this you quickly realize the punks were right – attitude is everything. Consequently, a skilled person who is nonetheless not the single most skilled in the pile could in fact be the best person to push the team forward.

Talent rocks, but attitude is king.

Talent is awesome, but punk proved it’s often overemphasized. Success is determined by a host of variables, not just one. Companies need to remember this when hiring.

Authenticity Inspires Greatness

Punk culture eventually evolved into hoards of posturing posers, each trying to out “cool” the next. This was such a departure from the movement’s beginnings that started with genuine acts of rebellion. Punk started with bold artistic expression. It began with a guy who just had to know what a safety pin would look like in his nose.

The originators of punk rock were truly authentic. When the Ramones first toured England, they inspired a revolution. Members of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and many other soon-to-be-formed bands watched in wonder as the Ramones entertained the crowd and kicked butt despite having barely any talent at all. They did have authenticity. They were real. The audience members figured that if the Ramones could be in a band, anyone could.

The leadership lesson here is one of my favorites. You can be confident and competent all you want. If you’re not accepted as real, raw, unfiltered, imperfect and human, however, you won’t inspire the strongest possible followership. People like real.

Punk started with bold artistic expression. It began with a guy who just had to know what a safety pin would look like in his nose. The originators of punk rock were truly authentic.

At work I watch professionals spend mounds of time managing impressions. They spend big chunks of their finite time and energy crafting and delivering fake images of themselves. In a way, this is a sign of social intelligence. However, we over-indulge to the point of becoming sterile, cardboard and uninteresting.

Let down your hair and let them see you as you really are. You don’t have to make best friends at work, but they need to know you as a person almost as much as knowing you as the boss. When they relate to you on a human level as well as a professional level, that is when the magic begins.

Thank you Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee


Art by Thumbshare

Dr. Dewett is an author, professional speaker, recovering management professor, and Harley Davidson nut. His job is to build better leaders and teams. He is the author of The Little Black Book of Leadership. His unique brand of energetic leadership knowledge has resulted in quotes in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, Forbes, CNN, Investors Business Daily, USA Today, and hundreds of other outlets. After beginning his career with Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young, he has since spoken to and advised thousands of professionals around the world. Get to know Todd by visiting his home online at, his popular courses at, and his TEDx talk on YouTube.

  • Alastair Macartney

    The authenticity is absolutely true. Without this leadership fails in the longer term.

    I love the way you benchmark leadership across from Punk Rock and lessons that can be learnt there. I often draw leadership and teamwork lessons from extreme situations in a similar fashion.

  • Scribbles

    Rock on

  • Musiclv

    Thanks so much for compiling so much useful information in one
    place – Really going to help me out.


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