A while ago, George Anders recommended reading the new biography by Robert Hilburn entitled Johnny Cash: The Life. I placed it on my Christmas wish list, and it was a gift that delivered and stuck with me. Whatever your opinion about Johnny Cash’s music and life, he did amazing things and built a legacy many will remember.

Johnny Cash always seemed to have a burning desire within. He took his strong desire and made it into a reality. While some may look at his life and see it as luck, others will look and see decades of hard work. His life wasn’t a straight trajectory up. There was a mix. The early days were a slow crescendo, building to worldwide recognition and success. In the middle, there was a flatness with a clear danger to losing his long-term legacy. However, towards the end, he recaptured the imagination of many with the release of several CDs under the American Recordings label.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash photo taken in 1968 by Jim Marshall. For more photos by Jim go to marshallphoto.com.

Robert Hilburn did a great job of capturing Johnny Cash’s life, the ups and downs. Through it all, there are many valid lessons. No matter our occupation, Johnny Cash delivers key life and leadership lessons.

4 Leadership Lessons from Johnny Cash

After reading this biography, there are four leadership lessons that resonated with me.

1 – Work with people who help you find your voice.

Johnny Cash struggle at times in bringing out the best in his music. Early on in his career, Sam Phillips with Sun records served a role of challenging Johnny Cash to keep improving and pushing himself to really bring out his unique musical voice. Sam pushed him in his lyrics and overall musical direction.

As Johnny Cash’s career boomed, he didn’t necessarily have the people around him to challenge and push him. The accountability “partner” came again when Rick Rubin entered his life. Although this happened during the latter part of Johnny Cash’s life, Rick Rubin understood the voice of Johnny Cash and pushed him to tap into it again. By voice, it wasn’t his singing voice; it was his voice in what he wanted to portray and say through his music.

This is the challenge for us. We should embrace people who question us, push us to dig deeper. In doing this, we find the source of our creativity and leadership-ability. We find our true voice, instilling the confidence in who we are and what we want to say and present. Find the people to challenge you in positive, deeper ways.

2 – Align your work to a cause.

Johnny Cash often sung about people ending up in troubled situations. Folsom Prison Blues is one of those songs that bolstered his career. During his tours, Johnny Cash held a concert at several prisons. Something in this captured the attention of his audience, and his live prison albums climbed the charts.

Prisons and troubled pasts became more than just words on sheet music. Johnny Cash become one of the first musicians to use his celebrity status to testify to and lobby Congress on prison reform. His point of view:

“Prisoners have to be treated as human beings. If they’re not, when they’re turned out, they’re not going to act like human beings.” (p. 438)

The messages in some of his music became aligned with his actions. When work and cause are combined, a powerful change can gain momentum. Finding those opportunities to align our work with our cause is something we should seek. By doing both, our satisfaction and long-term impact grow.

3 – Choices impact lives.

Johnny Cash’s life wasn’t pristine. He had challenges in marriage, drug use, and finding his way through down times. Even with this, he understood the impact choices have on not only his life but those around him. In a simple story of his daughter, Roseanne, and her staying out too late and drinking too much, the essence of this understanding came out strongly. When he talked to Roseanne, he simply said,

“You have a choice. You can stay home and do drugs or you can go on the road with me, see the world, and make a lot of money… Everyone has a choice in life. It’s up to you to make the right one.” (p. 443)

Johnny Cash clearly didn’t always make the right choices. We will not either. However, in understanding the power of our choices, we will hopefully be more aware of the paths we pick.

4 – Go to the studio and do the work.

Johnny Cash’s career could have easily never happened. A few things did. The first is he was in the right place at the right time. Sun Records was in his backyard, and he kept showing up on their doorstep. There is truth in the quote by Thomas Jefferson.

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

The other important aspect in Johnny Cash’s success is that he always went to the studio to work on his craft. After traveling many miles or surviving the death of June Carter, he kept returning to his studio to hone his work, find his inspiration, and do the work.

In the studio, creative sparks happen. Unless the work is done, however, they just sit in the cloud waiting for you to continue to finish the book, story, or poem. Unless the work is done, the song remains a continuous work-in-progress or the painting remains just a rough sketch. As Johnny Cash did throughout his life, he kept going into the studio to create and bring to life what artistry inspired him.

In the studio, leadership aspirations happen. Unless we are in the arena, however, we become spectators. Watching is not the same as doing. Leading requires engaged thought and proactive action.

The Man in Black: A Call to Act

Johnny Cash is an intriguing character. He wrote an engaging, real life story in what he did and how he did it. As the lyrics in his song The Man in Black highlight:

“Well, there’s things that never will be right I know

and things need changin’ eve’ywhere you go.

But until we start to make a move to make a few things right,

you’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Oh, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day

and tell the world that eve’ything’s OK.

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back.

‘Till things are brighter; I’m the man in black.”

So, there it is. The call to act. The call “to make a move to make a few things right.”

Learn from Those Before You

The reason I love biographies is they deliver a real story with real lessons. We can absorb them and then learn and place them into action in our own lives. Exploring the lives of different people in different places is essential. So, go grab a biography this summer and learn from someone before you.

Which biography will you read this summer?