There was an amazing supergroup of hard rockers that owned the arena tour market in the 1970s. They were selling albums like madmen, and rolling in the cash (very tax-free like). Some think Led Zeppelin slammed into a brick wall at full-steam, others think they just slowly lost altitude and drifted to a halt in 1980.

Led Zeppelin Lessons

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a juggernaut that stopped moving is a useful way to evaluate your organization’s future. There are some key leadership lessons from Led Zeppelin.

1. How you start isn’t how you finish

Led Zeppelin was mostly built by the amazing guitarist Jimmy Page, after he left another incredible rock act and found the perfect makings for what many call the first heavy metal/hard rock band. He enlisted a trusted studio musician John Paul Jones to play bass and keyboards, he was the trusted talent who knew how to crank out albums and perform on cue. Next, he pulled in a wild-man drummer named John Bonham who had the sound he needed. That was really a pair-get, as “Bonzo’s” buddy Robert Plant, the soon to be Golden God, brought the voice Jimmy wanted and those two were from the same part of England. The band was a shock to the senses in the U.S., and they rocketed to the top of the record sales and touring circuit. They were burying the hippies and launching a new sound. That was until they fell apart and lost their mojo as the 1970s closed, and were seen as hippies themselves by the new punk, disco and new wave acts. Call it Karma, but when you publicly push out the old-guard, you need to stay on guard for the next revolutionaries.

2. Beware the Critics

While Led Zeppelin was careful not to reinvent the wheel while making their new sound, they left themselves open to claims of borrowing too much. They were so loud, new, and wild, that the press took an instant dislike to them. The fans on the other hand could not get enough. But eventually the violence that surrounded their act, backstage and in the crowds would turn off the fans, their few press allies, and the bandmates themselves. They had let a very bad element into the entourage, and it was all funded by their talented but brutal manager Peter Grant. The band and management never figured out how to work with the press. They were always angry, distrustful, and said the wrong thing. They could not figure out how to at least get the press to the neutral category. This cost them in the long-run. While times were good, the band could live with bad press. But when times were hard, and it got ugly, the press gave them no quarter and the band took it to heart.

3. Say no to drugs

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll seem to go together, especially in the touring rock world. But Zeppelin took this stereotype to a new level. It eventually caught up with them. So many band mates and key management members became addicted to drugs and bad behavior that it interfered with every aspect of music making. They couldn’t start shows on time or play consistently. They couldn’t make use of their studio time and wasted a lot of money and energy trying to make music. They finally couldn’t plot out their own future, as drug-use basically destroyed their record label and tour planning. While drugs are weeded out in the security clearance process, there are other topics and issues that can tear teams apart. Figure out what your “drug problem” is and get those users to rehab.

4. The King Can’t Reign forever

A fatal flaw in this band’s longevity was they never dropped the dead weight. While acts like the Rolling Stones, who were also heavily into drugs, found a way to schmooze the press and keep the tour on track, Led Zeppelin got stuck. They had a powerful manager who was well-connected to the touring and promotion world, but when he went into drug-induced isolation, the whole operation shut down. They could not figure out how to find a new leader, and it even seemed like they never even thought of trying to. Grant was great when he was good, but a disaster when he was down. And he eventually brought many of the band and management team down with him. The military and many civilian organizations have learned the value of rotating leaders out of senior positions regularly, and appointing an empowered deputy. Fresh blood is needed to right the ship now and again. Zeppelin was in a steep dive for years, and too often, no one was manning the controls.

5. Play to your strengths, know your weaknesses

To be honest, I own a lot of Led Zeppelin vinyl; they are a great band. The MCU film juggernaut has brought the Zeppelin sound to many new audiences, so people are listening to their amazing music. Even old critics like the Rolling Stone magazine now seem to love Led Zeppelin. The band was formed the right way, and they used their talents wisely when making music. Jones was the studio rock, he would show up and make the right sounds, but he was not the hit songwriter. Bonzo was a beast on drums. But Bonham’s weakness came through on stage and in his failure to show up for record albums. It eventually took his life and ended the band’s plan for a reset. Plant was a phenomenal front-man, but when he was low and homesick, it sapped his talent and hurt the band. Finally, Jimmy Page, was an amazing guitarist – one of the best in the world. He was the band leader, but failed in his responsibilities when drug addiction blew his time management skills. Drugs eventually robbed him of his ability to perform on stage and in studio.

LEadership Makes Companies Stand Out from the REst

Led Zeppelin will hold a special place in musical history, they are in the Halls of Fame, made the massive record sales, and got the Grammy nominations along the way. But what could have been, if only they had a better leadership system in place? The skill was there, the heart and passion, the cockiness and ability to gain a following—but Led Zeppelin lacked a consistent leader that could guide them through the lows and protect them from the dangerous highs. There are few bands with the longevity of the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith; it is a tough business. Leadership and planning are what allow you to reach the top of the game, and to stay there. Led Zeppelin were the Beatles-like influencers of the 1970s, it is interesting to imagine what more they could have done with the right leadership.

 

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.