High Hopes: Lessons on Engagement from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

By Kathy Miller on April 13th, 2014

E Street BandKathy Miller Perkins & Steve Perkins

 We are still buzzing from our annual trek to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert (just prior to the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction).  As always, we were completely involved in the concert for over three hours.  As his lyrics say, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you are alive”.  Admittedly, we are devoted fans of the “Boss” but even non-fans can learn about engagement and community from performers like Bruce.   After all, when did you last involve yourself in an activity that was so captivating that your attention never waivered for over three hours?

We were immersed in a crowd of 15,000 fans who were singing along, dancing in the aisles and erupting when Springsteen surfed the crowd (How is that for demonstrating trust!). We joined the Bruce tribe in arm waving at the appropriate times and shouting out the lyrics at Springsteen’s signal.  Now you might be thinking of how ridiculous we boomers looked engaging in this behavior at our age!  And yet, are we ever too old or too sophisticated to be completely engaged and to experience the joy that it brings?  I would argue that age, education, profession and position in life have nothing at all to do with engagement.

Given the right circumstances, any of us at any time can be thoroughly engaged in what we are doing – even our work!  Engagement is both emotional and cognitive.  When we are engaged, we feel excited and often exhilarated. At the same time, we are totally focused on what is happening in the moment.  We aren’t wondering about how others view us nor thinking about what we will do tomorrow. (Hence our public dancing and singing at a certain mature age!)  According to the research on employee engagement, it correlates positively with good health, sound finances, and sense of well-being.  Employee engagement also connects with higher levels of customer satisfaction, and greater worker productivity.

So since engagement connects to good outcomes for all, what can we learn from Springsteen or other rock stars about creating the climate for it?

  1.  The leader must be engaged if others are to follow.  No one who has ever attended a Springsteen concert questions how he demonstrates his own engagement.  He performs with passion.  He is absorbed in his music and his audience.  He tells stories about the songs that are touching and inspirational.  His energy never flags as he sprints across the stage and tramps into the audience repeatedly.
  2. The leader incudes people from all parts of the arena (or organization).  Bruce doesn’t limit his interactions with the fans having the “up-front” tickets.  He dances deep into the arena shaking hands, hugging, and connecting between verses.  Do we, as leaders of our companies, do the same?  This focus on inclusion explains why I refer to “participating” in a concert rather than merely “attending.” Bruce asks for and pays attention to audience input.  He plays songs that fans request from the floor or the stands.  He answers questions. He invites excited youngsters (as well as oldsters) to join him on stage, sing along, and dance.  He recognizes those who are celebrating special occasions such as anniversaries or birthdays, and he honors the achievements of others, such as the troops who have served overseas and volunteers for worthy causes.
  3. His concerts manifest hope.  His lyrics tell stories of going from loss to healing, from injustice to mercy and from despair to hope.  And the music’s rhythms and melodies carry us deeply into those stories and then deeper into ourselves.  We experience such community and energy through the music that we are emboldened to believe and hope that these songs’ messages will become real and true for us all.
  4.  He makes it personal.  He calls out to members of his band by their first names.  He reveals himself as a human being by talking about his missteps and his fears as well as his dreams and his triumphs.
  5. He creates a “tribe” through rituals.  Those of us who have been following Bruce for decades know what to expect and how to participate in the concert rituals.  When he yells out questions to the audience – we know what to answer.   We know his song lyrics and are ready (and eager) to sing either the verses or the chorus upon his lead.  During “Badlands” we all know when to do the one arm air punch and during “Shout” we all know when to do the two arm extended pump & jump.   And when he sings “Dancing in the Dark” everyone imagines that they will be the one called up on stage to dance.    Never underestimate the power of ritual to engage people not only with you, the leader, but also with the group or team.  Rituals connect people, and connections lead to stronger engagement.











So what did I learn about engagement from Springsteen? To engage others:

  • Demonstrate your own engagement.
  • Invite those you want to engage to participate with you in creating the future.
  • Make your interactions with others personal.
  •  Encourage and create rituals that bring people together.

Each of us is capable of applying these principles. I have “High Hopes” for all of us.