Three Leadership Secrets from Bohemian Rhapsody

I turn 60 years old this year. I share this fact because it will explain my next few sentences. As a teen, I listened to the rock band, Queen. They were eccentric, even edgy, and their tunes got stuck in my head. (It’s precisely what musicians want.) A few months ago, I saw the movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (twice) and later, watched a documentary on the band, complete with backstage footage and conversations where band members explained the method to their madness.

Below I share three secrets that enabled them to fully engage an audience at a concert. Although Queen’s popularity peaked almost 40 years ago, these secrets are more relevant today than when they first discovered them. If your goal is to better engage students, check out my three observations below.

Three Leadership Secrets to Better Engage Students

1. They were showmen, but they were participatory.

By 1977, Queen was performing at a concert and noticed that every fan in the audience was singing every note of every song they played. In fact, when the band finished the concert and walked off the stage, the audience sang them off the stage with “You Will Never Walk Alone.” It was at that point, Queen recognized the fans loved participating as much as seeing a concert. In response, band member Brian May proposed they create a song just for the fans to sing, dance, clap and stomp along with them. Brian composed the song, “We Will Rock You,” and often, Queen started their concerts with the song. Freddie Mercury would walk on to the stage alone, and he began to compel the audience to clap and stomp their feet as they sang the lyrics. Queen later said it was as if the audience started the concert. That simple song is still sung at ballparks and festivals. Later, the band invited audience members to wave banners during the song, “We Are the Champions.” They knew the best way to get an audience to love an event is to let them own it.

As leaders, we will best engage students when we communicate that they are part of the “show.” We must let them “own” what they’re learning in class or at home; we must listen to them and remember that students support what they help create.

2. They were unusual and catchy, but they were human.

Some called Queen’s style early Punk Rock. The costumes Freddie Mercury wore, the way he performed, the lyrics he sang were all uncommon then. Very uncommon. Some from the press called them self-indulgent; others called them eccentric. But they captured the imagination of young audiences in the 70’s and 80’s. The band differentiated themselves from other musicians with their look, sound and image. They had a unique brand. At the same time, they maintained a very human touch; in interviews they were real; their song lyrics portrayed some of the struggles everyone seems to feel. For example, “We Will Rock You” is about the three stages of a person’s life: boy, young man and old man, all hoping to make a difference in the world. As a boy, you believe you can change the world; as a young man you’re trying to change it; and as an old man you realize you must start the change with the small things within your reach. In interviews, they admitted how human they were, becoming fragmented on the long tours. What saved them, according to one interview, were the long sound checks before concerts. They would pause; talk to each other; look at each other and listen. They’d ask what’s not working and then choose their future direction.

Leaders win when we create a unique brand and style for ourselves that’s catchy and memorable for students. What do you do that’s uncommon? At the same time, we must let students peek inside to see our humanity; to be transparent and real.

3. They combined both old and new styles together.

When you listen to Queen’s most popular songs, you recognize what made them interesting was they were able to combine old music styles with very current sounds. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a classic example. That song shifts from classical to soft pop to punk rock before it’s over. They created new sounds by combining old and contemporary instruments, sounds and vocals. It was a sort of “ancient-future.” Freddie Mercury’s voice was memorable and his range was stunning. He could sing operatic measures one moment, and the hardest rock song you could imagine the next. The collaboration between old and new was perfect for a new generation that was growing up in often cynical times (Vietnam War, Watergate Scandal, economic downturns). The mixture of modern sounds (which is almost always attractive to a young generation) with more traditional sounds keeps listeners feeling like they’re staying attached to their heritage. I have found students have an interesting affinity to both cutting edge ideas and traditional connections to the past. Effective leaders are both timely and timeless.

As a leader, are you practicing methods and pedagogies that are timely and timeless? Do they gain a sense of security from you because you communicate you are in touch with the times, but also have a handle on timeless wisdom as a person?

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Three Leadership Secrets from Bohemian Rhapsody