Arts and Culture

Sir Elton John: 5 leadership lessons from my darkest hours

Musician Elton John performs at a concert in Twickenham in London, Britain June 3, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Sir Elton John: 'The future is always in your hands' Image: REUTERS/Neil Hall

Sir Elton John
Singer, Composer and Founder, Elton John AIDS Foundation
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There is a lot to be learned about leadership, especially when you come, as I did, from one field into another. After a career in music and then a quarter of a century of raising awareness about HIV/AIDS there are five things I think I want to pass on and I owe all the insight I have to a brave young man called Ryan White.

The first lesson I have learnt is the importance of finding, and following, a passion. In this respect I was fortunate from the start. I discovered my love of music when I was three years old. The first time I heard Elvis Presley I knew that was what I wanted to do. My passion arrived fully-formed.

There is never a straight line to success and there wasn’t for me. My father, for example, thought that pursuing a career in music was an outrageous, unacceptable thing to do. But I wasn’t to be deterred. I stuck at it and I found that I loved it. It offered joy and material abundance beyond my wildest dreams.

Portrait by Greg Gorman

Fame as a curse

But once I attained these bounties, I began to lose them and, even worse, I began to lose myself. My essential humanity began to dissolve into an excess of drugs and alcohol. Fame, which at first sight looks like a blessing, soon revealed itself as also a curse. I am afraid I reacted very badly. I became a loathsome person – selfish, self-centred, and disconnected. That amounts to a painful second lesson, one I learnt by doing it all wrong. A good leader has a moral integrity that survives both success and failure.

But, mercifully, it is possible to change. This is my third lesson – that the future is always in your hands. It was at my lowest point that I had the great good fortune to meet Ryan White and his mother Jeanne. Ryan had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and, to compound that pain, he had been treated with savagery by society, the reactions to his condition ranging from nasty indifference to vicious contempt. I read about Ryan’s disease, the way he and his family were suffering, and I was outraged. I wanted to help them—but they ended up helping me far more.

Battling stigma

I was entirely humbled as I watched Ryan and Jeanne battle stigma, discrimination, and hatred with the most total grace. Their ability to cope with real adversity helped inspire me to turn my own life around. Ryan White was the spark that helped me recover from my addictions. It was the crucial lesson he taught me that led me to start the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation is now 25 years old and for the past quarter century I have had the privilege of raising both awareness and funds for organisations on the front lines of the epidemic. This leads directly to the fourth lesson which is that there is nothing more profound, nothing more powerful than a recognition of common humanity.

This is more than a platitude; it is the foundation of progress on issues such as HIV/AIDS. When we can construct some human beings as beneath our dignity, as we used to do, then it is easy to turn a blind eye to their suffering. When we begin to think of them all with fellow-feeling then we are aware that those who suffer are like us. That is the impulse which leads, in time, to the collective organisation of help. It is the moment that we began the process of healing.

Process of healing

We need the process of healing today more than we have ever needed it before because the progress we have made is under threat. Funding for the Ryan White CARE Act and HIV prevention services is being threatened. Healthcare for the poorest and most vulnerable is under attack. Unjust immigration policies are driving people underground and away from the healthcare and services they need. Racial injustice and violence are once again on the rise. The hard-fought gains in civil liberties for LGBT people are in danger of being turned back. Violence against transgender people is skyrocketing.

However, this is no counsel of despair because the fifth and final lesson is that hope can be answered and progress can triumph. The world can be tilted towards the light. In the world of the artist, that can be done by an individual or by a small band of like-minded men and women. In our social lives, a good society requires us to come together.

Common Humanity

In concerts in Tel Aviv, I’ve seen Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Muslims all come together in the same spirit and appreciate the same music. From Moscow to Beijing to Mexico City to Johannesburg, I’ve seen millions of people of different ages, nationalities, political parties, and religions join together in celebration.

And through the work of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, I’ve witnessed and participated in an amazing journey of progress against stigma, discrimination, and misinformation. I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with activists standing up to the powerful establishment. I’ve held hands with Democrats and Republicans to unite for change through PEPFAR, a landmark United States government programme to address the AIDS epidemic that has saved millions of lives around the world.

That process of bonding begins with the embrace of our common humanity. There is no greater lesson.

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