Leadership through Hope: Lessons from Reggae Music

Evil is stronger than good, it is an established fact. Negative events – losing money, being abandoned by friends, receiving criticism – have a stronger impact on us than equivalent positive events – making money, making friends or receiving praise. We remember their sting for years. Salient incidents of conflict shape our identities, relationships, and memories more than incidents of harmony.

That’s probably why negativity sells so many records. Heavy metal, gansta rap, shock rock, industrial, punk, these are all genres that have succeeded by exploiting negativity.

One thing you don’t hear a lot in contemporary music is hope. Yet this kinder, gentler concept can be powerful in its own way. Think of the power of Bob Marley’s ubiquitous image, music and lyrics so many years after his death. As Roger Steffens wrote in an essay on Bob Marley, his imagery, adorning many t-shirts, flags and other protests, is “almost a new universal language, the symbol…of freedom in the world”.

Bob Marley and the Wailers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The reason Bob Marley lives so strongly in the public imagination is that his music had a significant positive message. . It wasn’t just positive in the sense of a good time, although there was some of that. Marley’s music was transformative, aspiring to make the world a better place (and arguably, made real progress on that front).

Leaders who are able to truly exert lasting influence are the ones who give us hope. In a chapter of the recent book How to be a positive leader, Professor Oana Branzei of the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University defines hope as the belief that people and situations can and will change for the better. Political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela or religious leaders like Mother Theresa and Archbishop Ddesmond Tutu had their powerful impact because they convinced others that a better future was possible and doable.

Hope is powerful because it energizes and propels people forward even when the odds are against them. He helps people find innovative ways to work around their constraints. Hope helps people rise above their circumstances.

Both positivity and negativity can help people through difficult times. The difference is that positivity can pave the way for positive action for a better future. In times of great social upheaval like in the United States in the 1960s, positive music provided a motivating soundtrack.

Recently, a resurgence in positive reggae music has offered messages of hope to a growing audience. Bands such as Rebelution, SOJA, Tribal Seeds, The Expendables and Iration have brought reggae and its positivity into the 21st century. For these groups, reggae music reinforces the effectiveness of what they have to say. As Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote in The mystique of sound and music“Music lifts the soul of man even higher than the so-called outward form of religion…Therefore in ancient times the greatest prophets were great musicians.”

“If I just said my words in a speech without the music, I don’t know if it would really affect people,” Eric Rachmany, frontman and songwriter of reggae band Rebelution, told me. “But because I do it through music, there’s a way to reach the soul in a way that can’t necessarily be done just by talking.” Fans seem to have gotten the message. The band’s fourth album, Count on merecently entered the Billboard charts at number 14, selling 17,201 copies in its first week.

“People want to root themselves in positive music,” Rachmany said. “They hear an uplifting song and they want to spread it to their friends and family. I think people are really dying for this positive movement. Rachmany himself was inspired by another reggae artist, Don Carlos. “I felt a loving energy when I saw him play and I want to do the same.”

Leaders can also harness the power of hope to bring out the best in others and create more positive and effective organizations. Branzei offers three guiding principles for instilling hope in the work. The first is to act “as if” or to act as if the positive outcome is guaranteed. Acting “as if” helps overcome the inertia of the status quo. It presents the goal as possible and attainable. Second, offers relief from despair. Leaders can remind people to focus and refocus on the positive. To keep moving forward. Third, leaders can create hope by making it public, acting out opportunities to share and spread hope.

If they use hopeful music, they may be able to do all three more effectively. Given all the negativity in the world, they will need all the help they can get.

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Rebelution live. Photo credit: Jason Siegel

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