Lou Reed: Storytelling, Rule-Breaking and Inspiring

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Velvet_Underground_1993_promo_photo“I think life is far too short to concentrate on your past. I rather look into the future,” were among the famous and memorable words spoken by Lou Reed, an American Rock Musician and Songwriter. Founding the cult favorite band The Velvet Underground attracted his first public following, which was followed by his solo career which spanned decades. He is attributed credit for helping shape rock and culture today in America. Reed embodied leadership qualities that enabled him to touch millions of lives and influence society.

3 of Lou Reed’s Leadership Traits


Storytelling is one of the least recognized strengths in leaders, and yet it is highly impactful. From musicians and artists to managing executives, this rule applies. When asked “Why is the art of storytelling important to business leaders?” Consumer Research Executive Paul Smith explains “Because you can’t just order people to “be more creative” or to “get motivated” or to “start loving your job.” The human brain doesn’t work that way. But you can lead them there with a good story” (Forbes).

This is a concept that Lou Reed understood well. It was a passion that could be traced back to his time at Syracuse University, when he studied Creative Writing. He knew he wanted to become a writer and express himself in the most concrete way possible (CBS News). His ability to convey a message and tell a story are no doubt forever conveyed in the songs he wrote through his life. “All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”


Like many great leaders, Reed had little care for rules. After all, rules are simply the guidelines put in place by humans, who are undeniably flawed in nature. Were there a rulebook for music at the time, it would have surely warned against Reed’s progressive decisions when it came to content. But his willingness pushed boundaries, paving the way for human rights discussions still active today. For example, Neil Gaiman describes Reed’s song “the casual way that Transformer took nascent gay culture and made it mainstream” (The Guardian).

Even at the core of his musical techniques, Reed wasn’t following the rules. “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz” may be his most memorable quote. This approach differentiated his style immediately in his career, and now has a name “Ostrich Guitar.” It is a technique still in the industry today. Similar to any other innovation in technology, business or otherwise, the cultural evolution of his music was rooted in breaking away from the pack and defying standards.


Being inspirational is an obvious trait among leaders and that is no exception for Lou Reed. Beyond his musical influence on modern culture, in the Huffington Post’s We Now Live In Lou Reed’s America, Mark Yzaguirre says of former Velvet Underground leader, “Lou Reed influenced people all around the world, including Vaclav Havel, whose peaceful revolution against communism in Czechoslovakia was named after Reed’s former band.”

But influence that spans the globe starts small. Day-to-day decisions and words of kindness spur a domino effect of inspiration. Maureen Tucker, Velvet Underground drummer, said of Reed “Working with Lou sometimes could be trying — never to me. We learned from each other. We all learn from each other without even realizing it,” she said. “Lou was generous, encouraging, thoughtful, and I loved him very much” (CBS).


It was his sincerity in telling a story through song, willingness to break the rules by taking a “walk on the wild side” and genuine care for other people that made Lou Reed a great leader in his industry. In a world where superheroes like Wolverine or Storm in X Men Days of Future Past are merely a creation of fiction, it is leaders like Lou Reed that make a difference; that change lives.


The Velvet Underground Photo Credit: Gram Wood, Wikipedia 
Lou Reed Photo Credit: Man Alive! Wikipedia


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