Further to Aithan Shapira’s insight about leading more like artists, by any definition, Garth Brooks is a leading artist and master of connecting with audiences. If you’re a fan, you’ve already watched Netflix’s “Garth Brooks: The Road I’m On.” If you like country music, it’s a must see. And if you’re a student of leadership, there’s much to be gleaned. Here are some of the lessons. (Unless otherwise attributed, the quotes are Garth’s words.)
1 Play the music the audience wants to hear
“You don’t belong to yourself. When you step on stage you belong to them.”
“It would be Julio and Willie Nelson. It would be George Strait. It would be Elton John. I mean if you had a song you wanted to hear, you’d throw it out there and he’d play it. He wouldn’t just play it. He’d play it.” – Sandy Mahl
“A good entertainer will do whatever the crowd is expecting of the entertainer, whether it’s what the entertainer wants to do or not. But the greatest entertainers, the greatest of all time, are those so lucky that they get to do what they want to do and it’s exactly what that crowd came to see.”
2 Get help
Garth was open to help. From Wild Willie’s fans in Stillwater, Oklahoma who raised the money he needed to go to Nashville the first time. From Bob Doyle who mortgaged his house to start his own music management business and paid Garth $300/month as his first act.
When Garth was at rock bottom, having been rejected by seven record companies in a row, Bob told him “I know it’s going to happen. It’s just when.”
Garth thought, “This guy thinks I’m going to get a record deal….This guy thinks that. Maybe I should start thinking that way too.”
3 Own up to your mistakes – fast
Garth’s first attempt at making in Nashville lasted 24 hours. He wasn’t ready. He was overwhelmed. He turned around and went back to Oklahoma.
“Sometimes your most driving forces aren’t your greatest memories.”
His supporters only asked, “You going back?”
4 Do the work
For Garth, this meant working the job he needed to earn the money he needed to fund his early days in the music industry. And it meant playing all the gigs and signing all the autographs once he got his first record deal. (Another plank in connecting with his audience.)
5 Rely on the experts
Garth let the managers manage and the producers produce.
6 Put yourself in front of opportunities
Commit and be ready.
As Tony Arata put it, “You literally never know who’s listening and what impact that person listening might be able to have on your life.” Garth heard Arata play an early version of “The Dance” at the Bluebird Café before either of them had anything and vowed to record it when…
Later, When Ralph Murphy called in sick, Garth got moved up from seventh to second one night at the same Bluebird Café and so wowed the audience that Capital Records’ Lynn Schultz – who had just rejected him and was in the audience – changed his mind and signed Garth to his first record deal.
7 Treasure your team
Garth’s studio band has been virtually the same since day one. He’s stuck with his producers and managers and still plays with his college roommate Ty England.
8 Cut the cords
Garth wears a wireless headset so no cords restrict his ability to connect with the audience.
9 Do what matters
Garth’s social commentary on world hunger, freedom of speech, homelessness, homophobia, racism, and freedom of religion, “‘We Shall Be Free’ is definitely and easily the most controversial song I have ever done.
I never thought there would be any problems with this song. Sometimes the roads we take do not turn out to be the roads we envisioned them to be. All I can say about ‘We Shall Be Free’ is that I will stand by every line of this song as long as I live. I am very proud of it. And I am very proud of Stephanie Davis, the writer. I hope you enjoy it and see it for what it was meant to be.”
10 Take it on the road
Garth didn’t know what to expect from his first international tour and his first stop in Dublin. He got up on stage in front of a sold-out crowd who knew every word to every one of his songs. He wasn’t singing to the audience. The band was just playing music so the audience could sing his songs.
11 Make the big bets
As scary as taking US country music abroad was, it was even scarier taking it to New York’s Central Park where Simon and Garfunkel had drawn 250,000 people.
“And all those fears of nobody’s showing up get replaced with fears of, Oh my God, this many people showed up and now you’re scared you’re going to disappoint ‘em.”
About 1,000,000 people showed up for that concert. None of “’em” were disappointed.
12 Take creative risks
Garth’s attempt to perform as his alter-ego Chris Gaines was a relative failure. But it gave him a chance to try something completely different.
13 Make the hard choices
Garth and Sandy Mahl ended their marriage after 14 years while doing their best to preserve each other’s dignity and stay focused on their children.
14 Accept your own conflicting interests
At a peak of his career, having just sold 100 million records, Garth retired to spend time with his daughters Taylor, August, and Annie.
“There’s going to be storms. There’s going to be fireworks. There’s going to be people screaming in your ear, left and right. They’re going to be calling you names. But all they’re doing is trying to distract you from what you do. You’re sailing your ship.”
15 Know the most important thing
The single most important determinant of happiness is your choice of a spouse. Garth knows he’s done that with Trisha Yearwood. They first met recording a demo of Kent Blazy’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes” in 1988. The chemistry was there the first time they met. As Garth explained it “I feel like I just met my wife.” But “It can’t be.” Until it could be when they got married 17 years later.