When organizational leadership becomes a train wreck....

Trainstation Photo by Charles Forerunner on Unsplash

I recently watched the Netflix documentary – Train wreck: Woodstock 99.  It told a disturbing story of the music festival, known for love, peace and harmony in 1969, that in 1999 ended in looting, burning, and rioting. It chronicled the descent from hope and excitement to rage, anarchy and destruction. Before I watched the series, I remembered vaguely hearing that its downfall was due to a mass of angry, out of control, drug using, frat boy-like youth. Yet, this documentary exposed a fuller picture. It revealed how the actions (and non actions), and undercurrent values, of the top organizers - along with others (employees, volunteers, performers and audience) - led to creating a catastrophic atmosphere (culture) of violence, irresponsibility and blame. Although culture is created by everyone within the group, top management has the role and responsibility for setting tone and direction (Jordan et al, 2013). Organizational Leadership becomes a train wreck when management lacks the leadership capabilities and character to ensure desired outcomes. Capabilities and character include aligning values with actions within context and being accountable. Woodstock 99 organizers, Michael Lang and John Scher lacked values alignment and accountability.

Lack of values alignment 

Co-founder of the original Woodstock, Lang at first didn’t want to revive Woodstock because he didn’t think it would have “the same impact of peace, love and flower power”. Woodstock 69, located during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement, was a counterculture movement. However, with the rising issue of gun violence and thinking about his kids’ generation, Lang felt that youth could benefit from Woodstock’s vision and message of hope and unity. He partnered with promoter Scher. Lang and Scher had different values. Lang was committed to a higher purpose and Scher to profit. This was not a bad thing in itself. Successful organizations can take into account a greater societal contribution and financial viability, in fact it is the what the world needs (Wolfe et al., 2007; Barrett, 2017). Lang and Scher’s partnership had great potential. However, through a series of choices and actions that lacked values alignment, the festival devolved to where employees hid, volunteers quit, performers left, and the audience transformed into a riotous mob in which the state troopers were called in. One example of the many misaligned decisions made was Scher’s choice of bands based on sellout performances and Lang’s ignorance about the messages that they were purporting. Instead of a consistent line up of performers whose lyrics were about love and harmony, many headliner performers (Korn, Limp Bitzkit, Rage Against the Machine) were known for their aggressive, unrestrained hedonistic, and anarchistic hard rock/metal lyrics. Even though one of the employees raised this concern, he was “looked at like he shouldn’t open his mouth”. This lack of values alignment contributed to the subsequent consequences and highlighted the clear priority of profit over peace.

Lack of Accountability

Post festival, when called to account, neither Lang nor Scher took responsibility for their roles as the top organizers. Instead, Lang said “you can’t vet the people who buy your tickets”. No, you can’t but you can consider who you are inviting and who are the fans. As well, Lang said nothing about how the decision to give out 100,000 candles to the crowd at the final performance was the catalyst for the burning fires and riots. Another employee, the assistant stage manager, told Scher “you can’t do that” who responded by telling him to shut up. The assistant stage manager recognized the volatile tone and atmosphere. All through the festival people were hyped up that they could expect a big surprise at the end which led them to expect some extra special artist. Once the final act was finished, the announcement was made the festival was over. Festival goers had spent three days in excruciating temperatures on a decommission military base (with all that symbolized) without being allowed to bring in their own water and food and with vendors charging exorbitant prices. They had lived in substandard health and safety conditions because Sher and Lang did not ensure proper sewage and litter disposal, medical support or security. They were tired, dirty, pissed off, hung over and/or on drugs. Employees, volunteers, and outside witness spoke to how festival goers had not been cared for and as a result they didn’t care. Lang shrugged and put the debacle down to a few a**holes. Additionally, Sher blamed others. For example, he said lead singer Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit could have quieted the crowd down but instead riled them up. Durst rallied the crowd into a frenzy with his song, break stuff, calling for them to “let their negative energy out”. It is true, Durst could have acted as a leader. He could have taken a bigger picture view and claimed his agency to impact the crowd for the greater good that Woodstock represented. Instead, he did what Fred Durst does: he rallied anarchy. The ultimate responsibility though lies with Scher and Lang. They unfortunately lacked values alignment and accountability.

Without a doubt, top management have a difficult role to play. They can, however, step up to be leaders with values alignment and accountability. Values alignment occurs when leaders consider how values can exist with (and within) one another and how leaders hold themselves accountable to what is happening through the decisions that they are making based on the values they purport. Top management do not need to do this alone, in fact cannot. They can actively seek out and listen to their employees’ and others perspectives. In this way, leaders can draw upon collective wisdom to avert, and ideally avoid altogether, train wrecks.

Barrett, R. (2017). The values-driven organization. Cultural health an employee well-being as a pathway to sustainable performance. (2nd ed.)  Routledge.

Jordan, J., Brown, M., Trevino, L., & Finkelstein, S. (2013). Someone to look up to: Executive-follower ethical reasoning perceptions of ethical leadership. Journal of Management, 39(3), 660–683.

Thorton, C. & Kosminsky, C. (Producers) & Crawford, J. (Director). (2022). Train wreck: Woodstock 99 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com

Wolfe, D., Sheth, J. & Sisodia, R. (2007). Firms of endearment: how world-class companies profit from passion and purpose. Wharton School Publishing.

Trainstation Photo by Charles Forerunner on Unsplash