Jerry Garcia: Strong Leader

David Burn
3 min readJul 21, 2020

“Jerry was the Sun of the Grateful Dead — the music they played was like planets orbiting around him.” -Carlos Santana

Jerry Garcia was exceptional and he was strong, but he didn’t want to be the leader. He didn’t want to tell people what to do.

With this old school leadership model in mind, Jerry never claimed to be the leader of the band, even though it was obvious to everyone in the band that he was not just the leader, but the heart and soul of Grateful Dead.

As a business, the band sought to function as a family, where consensus was needed to move forward. On stage, things worked out a bit differently. On stage, Garcia was lead guitar player and because he flexed his muscles on guitar, the band and its fans benefited greatly.

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Bob Weir is one of the all-time great support players in rock and roll. His rhythm work and Phil Lesh’s heavy bass gave Jerry a rich palette to work with, and work with it he did. Grateful Dead opened up traditional folk songs and made them into exploratory jazz-based journeys. Jerry’s freedom to play without a net led him and everyone around him into newfound space.

Who plays one song for 46 minutes and keeps it interesting? Grateful Dead. How did they achieve this? Through advanced listening, devotion to craft, hours upon hours of practice, and liberal doses of LSD.

For a performer in front of a live audience, there’s immense bravery in improvisation. The risk of failing and appearing the fool is pretty high, and no performer wants to fail harder or faster like today’s thought workers do.

Jerry was brave to go where his mind and fingers led him. He was fortunate to have supportive bandmates and fans who urged him on at every turn, eager to see what Jerry would do next. Eager to have their minds blown once more.

Grateful Dead could stretch your mind and then reel you back in with a heartbreaking ballad or poignant frontier song. This band was Americana before Americana was a known musical genre.

Being a great leader — as Jerry was on stage — requires that you know your role. We are social creatures and we organize ourselves accordingly. A wolf pack has an alpha, or the pack falls apart. For Grateful Dead, Jerry was alpha with a capital “A”.

Off-stage, Jerry was technically just another voting member of the group. Or so the story goes. I am not prepared to buy the hippie collective thing in full, because ultimately it’s just another framework and in this case a particularly male framework, at that.

I imagine (and I can also piece together from everything I know about the band and Jerry) that you needed Jerry’s buy-in to move an idea forward. That is not to say it was Jerry’s way or the highway. That’s not anyone’s model of enlightened leadership. Jerry led by example, as so many truly great leaders do. You could choose to follow or not.

To read the entire series of Jerry Garcia-inspired articles, click here and let the good times roll. #9DaysofJerry #DaysBetween

David Burn

Fired up to write it down.