Running Down a Dream: The Case of Tom Petty


If you haven't seen Tom Petty perform live, stop what you are doing and find a show. Seriously.

Notwithstanding his standalone songwriting genius, Petty is an artist who is best experienced in person. His easy, yet authoritative stage presence--punctuated by an aggressive Southern drawl--animates his songs perfectly. You can't help but internalize their gritty hopefulness when confronted by them in close proximity. Trust me; you will leave the show a convert -- to Petty's songs, his voice, his musicianship, and his particular brand of cool.

That originality gets its full due in Warren Zanes's fantastic biography, PettyThe book depicts a curious, loyal, and deeply ambitious musician -- with more than a few leadership lessons to offer.**

Here are three big ones that stuck with me, long after finishing the book:

1. Ambition is everything. 

Petty had a fire in his belly that most folks can only dream of. He came from humble beginnings in an already humble city (Gainesville, Florida), yet he had the will to push, push, push for his dream. There is no way that Petty and the Heartbreakers would have become the successes they were without Petty's driving ambition at the helm. He propelled the band to L.A., literally combed a phonebook for label contacts, and aggressively circulated a demo. Mike Campbell, perhaps the best-known Heartbreaker after Petty, has played with Petty since the Mudcrutch days (in Gainesville): "I think very few people are as ambitious as Tom Petty. He just has that drive, always did. Thank God somebody in our group had that."

Another colleague, Jim Lenahan, who did a short stint in Mudcrutch before transitioning to lighting and videography for the Heartbreakers, marvels at Petty's ambition onstage: "Nobody had a clue who Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were. But they went out there and played like they were headliners. They would demand that people pay attention. Eventually, it worked."

How ambitious do you allow yourself to be? What would happen if you stopped holding back?

2. Embrace originality. 

I was surprised to learn that Petty's distinctive voice was not always front and center. It took time for Petty and his band to understand that his voice was the best possible match for his songs. Early Mudcrutch member Danny Roberts was hired as a "pro singer" to give Tom legitimacy. At that time, Zanes writes, "Petty's voice is laid-back, a voice with personality that no one was quite ready to see as the unchallenged front-runner. Even Petty wasn't sure--and you can hear that." 

However, as Petty began to raise his own voice more confidently, his star began to rise. By the time Mudcrutch made their demo, Zanes writes, "Petty sings like he knows he's meant to be there. It's actually hard to believe that the band had any hesitations about making Petty the sole lead singer...A character comes out when Petty opens his mouth. You knew there was a story there." 

Look hard at any "you-ness" that you are holding back in your professional life, and peel back the veil. How will you leverage those quirks as assets that only you possess?

3. Overused strengths can become weaknesses.

Petty recorded and toured recently with Mudcrutch, his original bandmates from Gainesville. The L.A. Times writes, "Rock 'n' roll-loving teenagers form a band and head for Hollywood in search of fame, only to fall short and disband. Flash ahead three decades. The members reunite, record the album they never got to make, play a series of sold-out shows and, having savored their victory lap, return to their lives."

As I see it, the late resurgence of Mudcrutch (actually on their second reunion victory lap) illuminates one of Petty's greatest strengths: loyalty. Petty was loathe to let people go, leave people behind, or turn people off -- even as his star eclipsed theirs and long after they became a thorn in his side. This is, for the most part, admirable.

However, this fierce loyalty caused Petty problems that will resonate with many execs. He was so wary of cutting ties that he failed to hold people accountable and waited far too long to cut people loose. Band staffing changes came late and awkwardly; as a result, they caused more personal pain that may have been necessary -- often because Petty himself was afraid to be direct about his concerns. 

What are your greatest strengths and how might they become distorted in excess? How will you know when you cross the line?

Want to catch a show?

Click here for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers dates. (Mudcrutch is off the road for now, but you can learn more about them here.) 

**Yes, I know Petty would probably scoff at the idea of being a leadership case study. My read may be decidedly uncool, but organizations with more Tom-Petty-ness would not be.