Skip to content

5 ways the 1970s punk-rock mindset can kick-start leadership

Half a century ago, idealistic punks shook a fist at the status quo — and their legacy is a blueprint for modern leadership.
Black and white image of a band performing on stage. One musician is playing a bass guitar while another sings into a microphone. The scene, embodying punk-inspired leaders, has a dark background.

Credit: Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) from Oslo, Norway / Wikimedia Commons

Key Takeaways
  • Some ideals of the punk rock movement in the 1970s contain valuable lessons for today’s business leaders.
  • Rejection of hierarchical thinking and engagement with burning societal issues are shaping today’s C-suite.
  • Punk-esque fearlessness can be translated into a bold plan for resolving tensions.

I was a kid in the 1970s. When the radio was on, we would get some ABBA, some T-Rex or some Boney M. But every now and again, on some pirate station we managed to find, we would blast the Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Stranglers. 

I had seen punks with their Mohicans and safety-pinned jeans in the streets and I had a red tartan mini-skirt which I wore with pride. Being 8 or 9 years old I wasn’t a punk, but punk was there, in the background as I was establishing who I wanted to be when I grew up.

There are myriad ways the punk-rock mindset is relevant to leadership today. And you don’t need to don the ripped t-shirt or dye your hair green to channel the attitudes that we need to change business and the world of work for the better.

#1. Speak out against injustice

The punks of the 1970s were frustrated by the politics of the time and wanted the under-privileged and under-served to be given a voice. Their music and fashions were, in part, a rejection of the status quo and a refusal to play by middle-class conventions. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, 80 percent of respondents want CEOs to speak up and lead on societal action. They want more business involvement on societal issues such as climate change, economic inequality, healthcare access, and reskilling. And nearly two thirds of employees will only work at a company if they share the same values.

Try Big Think+ for your business
Engaging content on the skills that matter, taught by world-class experts.

As a society people want their leaders to reject conventional acceptance of the world as it is and bring about change. They expect business leaders to speak up on these topics. You have a choice — play by the rules, keep a low profile, try not to ruffle any feathers, OR tackle the big, hairy injustices of our world (many of them tolerated or even perpetuated by business) and give voice to the needs of those without a voice of their own.

#2. Reject hierarchical hardwiring

Punk emerged at a time when our society was very respectful of the hierarchy. People from different social classes dressed differently, spoke differently, and had different pastimes. You called your boss by their surname or even “Sir.” You might feel, even with greater informality at work, that not much has changed. With hierarchy comes privilege. Those at the top get more perks, greater access to information and decision-making and more security. Punks rejected this automatic respect, breaking rules about how to behave and exposing the hypocrisy of “knowing your place.”

Today, hierarchical thinking in business stops us accessing the great ideas of junior people, the full diversity of our workforce, and empowering those on the ground to make decisions for themselves. Hierarchy slows our organizations down and encourages people to play politics, seek proximity to power and manage their reputations rather than doing their best work. Leaders need to identify where hierarchical thinking is inhibiting people from contributing to the business and tear it down.

#3. Seek tensions and embrace healthy conflict

The mosh pit was no place for you if you bruised easily but punks still dived in! I’m not suggesting you get physical! But we’ve become very averse to tough and uncomfortable conversations; to conflicts of opinion; and to strong emotions at work. We develop highly attuned skills of diplomacy, manipulation and game-playing so we can influence the agenda or the outcome without people knowing they’ve been played. Instead, today’s leaders need to identify tensions and go “towards” them. 

If the difficult, uncomfortable conversations aren’t happening at senior level, where are they happening? You can bet people lower down the organization see these tensions and talk about them. When leaders ignore them, dismiss them or use them to their advantage to gain influence it’s no surprise that people start to distrust them. And a distrusting culture can be very bad for the health of the business and the people within it. Have the difficult conversation, face the conflict, or you simply see those tensions popping up somewhere else as disillusionment with the authority figures in the organization. 

#4. Value individuality and belonging

Punk was about personal expression. Punks wore handmade or upcycled clothes (before that was a thing). They wanted to stand out and look different from the conventional fashions of the time. At the same time, they wanted to belong to the punk family. They wanted other punks to know they were one too. They hung out in groups, they created magazines to bind them together and deepen their thinking about punk culture, and went to gigs where they could meet like-minded people. 

This presents us with a valuable perspective on diversity and inclusion. When we embrace difference we get inclusion. When people feel they can be themselves they are more likely to feel they can belong, as opposed to feeling they must conform in order to be accepted. As leaders today, recognizing the way you bring a unique perspective and being willing to bring that perspective to the table, while embracing the unique perspectives of others, creates a stronger sense of “clan” than conformity to a narrow set of behaviors and opinions. That’s how we get the richness that people have to offer.

#5. Purpose above profit

1970s punks rejected commercialism and even capitalism. Not that there weren’t punk businesses, of course. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s King’s Road boutique was a commercial success. But they questioned the values of conventional capitalism much as today’s consumers are doing. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that the majority of people surveyed felt capitalism in its current form does more harm than good. At the same time, business leaders are more trusted than government leaders, the media and even NGOs to be ethical and competent. Young people in particular care that the companies they buy from are ethical. In addition, there is now a new ‘metric’ known as the “worth it” metric whereby people ask themselves whether the sacrifice they are making for their job is worth it. Often the answer is: “No, it is not.” 

Therefore, if businesses can put purpose at the centre of their vision, be a force for good in the world or at least find ways to make a positive contribution, they will more likely attract and retain the best employees and loyal customers. That isn’t to say that profits don’t matter. But profit, as a result of a commitment to a higher purpose, is the future of business success.

That’s why I say it’s time for leaders to reveal a little more of the punk underneath their suit. Whether, like me, you were a child of the 70s or your influences were more 80s New Wave or 90s Grunge the same applies. Underneath the armor that we’ve developed to get ahead at work and play the game as we thought it should be played, is a little rebel. It’s time to let that rebel have a voice, for the good of the people in the business, the people the business serves, and the world at large.

Unlock potential in your business

Learn how Big Think+ can empower your people.
Request a Demo