Recently, during the Young Global Leader boot camp on public leadership, we were asked to leave the White House earlier because Led Zeppelin was on their way to receive an award from President Obama. It made me wonder why rock stars always get invited to places and summits where world leaders make key decisions on our future?  A lot of people would rather have heads of state, NGOs or Fortune 100 companies focusing on other things instead of giving rock stars premium treatment. Although I don’t expect anyone who lands such powerful positions to give up of his/her musical tastes, there is a lot more than a fan behaviour here.

Leadership is as much about inspiring people as it is about being inspired by all sorts of things. World leaders are often very lonely people. Interaction and inspiration of various kinds should always be welcome, including with and from music legends, not just because being seen in their company is good for popularity, but also because they are true pioneers in global leadership.

People like Paul, Mick, Bob, Janis – or Bono later on – were among the first musicians to influence the world on topics that reached far beyond the artistic skills they relied upon to penetrate people’s lives and minds. In an Internet-free era, they broke the rules and made a true difference, beyond frontiers and ideologies

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if these artists had not started shaking it in the 1960s? And without them drawing people’s attention to topics most would never have heard of? Human rights, anti-war protests, racism, gender equity, poverty, climate change, AIDS … global awareness would not be the same without their support.

People might not agree with their political stances. Some think they do these things for publicity. Others even point at some of music-led initiatives that did not deliver as promised.

So what? At least some do something. Not all of them spend their time only looking at themselves and/or criticizing the initiatives of others. Because, at the end of the day, what really matters are the intentions and the actions taken. And rock stars are among the rare people who can raise large-scale awareness and lead global positive actions by touching each of us individually and creating collective change.

As a kid, I found my Dad’s record of George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh and started to ask questions about this country. I discovered who Steven Biko was thanks to a Peter Gabriel song heard on the radio. And seeing Live Aid – a global movement that no one else but music artists could have achieved – not only made me realize how fortunate I was to have something to eat every day, but also truly inspired me to help others. And I am sure there are millions of people that can share stories similar to mine, including presidents and world leaders.

We picture famous musicians in ivory towers, and tend to forget that a lot of them used to be like us. They started from scratch. But, unlike most people, they have reached far beyond their dreams. A handful of them, on their way to changing the world, offered us more than music and dance to escape reality: they raised our awareness about less glamorous realities we did not (want to) know about. They inspired people globally and gave us the precious gift of making us care for others. This is what true leadership is about.

Hence, it’s not only rock’n roll that we should like, but the leadership of these pioneers that helped shape today’s society. Let’s hope that world leaders keep inviting them to places like Davos, the White House or the UN to be inspired by their voices and actions.

Author: Olivier Oullier, PhD, is professor of behavioural and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University and a 2011 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He is vice-chair of the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience and Behaviour. From 2009 to 2012, he headed the Neuroscience and Public Policy Programme at the Centre for Strategic Analysis of the French Prime Minister. At night, he is an undercover composer, producer and DJ.

Photo Credit: Reuters Images: Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page receiving Kennedy Centre Honours by President Obama in December 2012


All opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Economic Forum Blog is an independent and neutral platform dedicated to generating debate around the key topics that shape global, regional and industry agendas.