Lessons in Leadership, Culture and Change from the Mosh Pit

In the summer of 1984, I discovered punk rock music. It changed my life, and it shaped my identity – and it utterly informed work as an organizational change consultant. 

I never grew a Mohawk or pierced my nose. I didn’t snarl at old women crossing the street. I was never a big fan of anarchy. No, the popular trappings of punk rock weren’t really my thing. For me, punk was a political, intellectual, and emotional force for change.

To understand the politics of punk, and its impact on a generation of American kids, it helps to understand the 1980s. The economy was creeping along. The Cold War felt hot. American culture felt stale and homogeneous. (Go watch “The Americans” on FX. Seriously.)

The early 1980s was not “morning in America.’ It was pretty bleak. 

In the words of actor John Cusack, “There's also some element of coming of age during the Reagan administration, which everybody has painted as some glorious time in America, but I remember as being a very, very dark time. There was apocalypse in the air; the punk rock movement made sense.”

In the time before the Internet, punk was a refuge of the lonely and misunderstood. It was where I learned to emotionally connect with others, bootstrap my own future and collaborate to create something significant.

“Time was slow back then. Things were barely moving, and this music came along and it was like an electrical charge,” recalls filmmaker Dave Markey in the film American Hardcore.

When I was 16 years old, punk rock in America was evolving from its urban and arty nihilistic roots into the suburbs. Time may have been slow. The music was fast and furious. The attitude was unapologetically political.

Punk music introduced me to the power of having a point of view. I was much more into The Clash’s smart, but angry, political stance than I was into the musically and personally abrasive Sex Pistols. Closer to home, the almost intellectual nature of the D.C. hardcore punk scene – Minor ThreatScreamGray MatterDag Nasty – and the angry, yet affirming, Boy Scout energy of bands like 7 Seconds appealed to me more than the in-your-face New York sounds of Agnostic Front.

But it was Richmond’s punk/hardcore scene in the 1980s and 1990s that most shaped my thinking about myself, and about others. The local scene was an amazing community of incredibly diverse nonconformists.

In Richmond’s punk rock community, I found a tribe of people who were curious, friendly and radical. I discovered feminism, globalism, environmentalism and politics. I developed self-awareness, and discovered the power of shared energy, connection and positive emotions. I learned that I didn’t need to wait to be invited to someone’s table – I could build my own tables.

Over the course of my adolescence and through college, hardcore punk was a social, emotional and intellectual cornerstone of my life. I booked bands, hung out with bands, and toured with bands. I published zines built around local music that I distributed around the world (by mail). I hosted radio shows, and interviewed dozens of traveling bands. I spent hours sitting on sidewalks along Grace and Broad streets connecting with others. And I did most of this before I was 18.

Listening to Graven Image; hanging out with Unseen Force and Four Walls Falling while they practiced; or interviewing Honor Role in a Hardee’s on Broad Street – through it all, I absorbed subtle lessons about the power of music and change. Distributing my own, self-published zine – a photocopied montage of typed record and show reviews, band interviews and bad poetry – connected me with people around the world. (At a time when the world was not so connected. 

What I didn’t fully appreciate then was how much all of this was teaching me – about myself, about community and about building the future. When I reflect back on my journey through Richmond’s punk and hardcore scenes, it’s easy to see how key lessons from Grace Street evolved into my key consulting philosophies:

  • Build your own table. If you’re tired of waiting to be invited to the metaphorical table by others, stop waiting and start building. If you don’t like the tables that anchor your community, stop complaining and start building. Oh, and make sure the table you build isn’t as exclusive and annoying as the ones it replaces. When alcohol regulations all but shut kids under 18 out of rock clubs in Richmond, some friends and I convinced Charlie Brown at New Horizon’s Café to let us book all age shows on Sunday afternoons. (I was 15 years old.)

  • You can do it yourself – but it’s more fun, and usually better, when you include others. There’s power in bootstrapping ideas with other people. There’s real energy found in enlisting a small group of passionate, like-minded people to come along for the ride. Connecting smart people with other smart people is transformational. Successful (a relative term, believe me) punk bands were built by local radio stations, fanzine editors, risk-taking club owners, and by someone who worked at an office with a photocopier (to print flyers, of course). Being a small link in a chain of people who helped bands thrive was significant. 

  • When someone falls, pick them up. In the mosh pit of old (think more organized slam dancing), if someone stumbled you helped them up. When a kid dove off the stage into the crowd – we did that a lot – you’d reach up to catch them. (Um, sorry about that one miss at that Black Flag/Rollins show, Kit.) When a band needed a space to practice, you opened your door. If someone didn’t have enough money to pay at the door, you found a way to sneak her into the show. Supporting the success of others is all about reciprocity.

  • Diversity rules. There was a magic moment in Richmond where you’d go to a show and old school punk rockers, everyday college kids, straightedge hardcore kids, skinheads, skaters and Goths stood shoulder-to-shoulder at a show. The scene was predominantly white and male, but girls formed the best bands, put out powerful fanzines, and launched their own record labels. Blame my sheltered suburban life, but my first real black, Asian and gay friends emerged from my involvement in Richmond’s hardcore scene. That diversity had impact. The music was better, the community was stronger and the energy was more positive when different voices were on stage.

  • Change starts with you. Bands like 7 Seconds and Verbal Assault taught me about looking in the mirror and the importance of self-awareness years before I knew who Carl Jung was!

  • It’s okay to let other people on the stage. The best bands welcomed their fans on stage for the inevitable moment when fans grabbed the microphone to sing along with their favorite singer, or to “mosh” on stage for a pregnant moment before stage diving into the crowd. There was room for everyone on stage. 

I'll wrap up with five songs that that are the pillars of my American punk hardcore consultant education.

Clampdown by The Clash is just one of so many calls to anger from this British group. Forget musical genres – The Clash is hands down one of the top bands of the last century. “Let fury have the hour / Anger can be power / Do you know that you can use it?” 

Heal by Verbal Assault is one of my favorites by this Rhode Island band. I was in awe, hanging out with these guys, 7 Seconds and Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat one night at the 9:30 Club in D.C. “Empty with no respect at all, we expect what’s been built to crumble and fall / Shocked at the indifference to our unheeded call / May I ask you what do we offer instead? / We can’t change around until we change within / To scream and yell and sloganize only shields us from our own lies” 

#1 Rule by 7 Seconds is not my favorite song by these champions of punk rock as “a positive force.” But its clear, non-comformist message has always resonated. “Number one rule is no rules / Number two they’re not for you / Number three they’re not for me / Number four, don’t be ignored / Number five to live our lives we must break down stagnant rules.”

Sink with California by Youth Brigade with its overtly anti-nationalist, anti-fascist theme remains one of my favorites – “I’ve been all around the country, and I’ve met a lot of kids / Some kids are smart, and others are dumb, but I don’t pass judgment they’re just having fun… / The kids are our future. You can see it in their eyes / We must overcome mediocrity if the world is to survive.” 

Salad Days by Minor Threat is a great reminder from our neighbors to the north (Washington, D.C.) that we’re all getting older, and that moving into the future is important. Minor Threat’s real impact came from giving birth to the straight edge movement, a subgenre of hardcore punk that rejects alcohol and other addictive habits as unnecessary crutches. Singer Ian MacKaye was another early entrepreneur – his label, Dischord Records, is still running strong today.