Searching for Leadership Lessons Behind the Lyrics

A course offered by the SDSU Leadership Minor examines leadership concepts in popular songs, and a Grammy winner is already on board.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023
Nikki Stipp (left) from the band Hooked Like Helen is scheduled to appear in an SDSU Education Leadership course. Pictured above, Stipp performed with husband Jon Stipp in Detroit.
Nikki Stipp (left) from the band Hooked Like Helen is scheduled to appear in an SDSU Education Leadership course. Pictured above, Stipp performed with husband Jon Stipp in Detroit.

Oh, I just want you to come with me
We on another mentality
Ain't got no tears left to cry
So I'm pickin' it up, pickin' it up
I'm lovin', I'm livin', I'm pickin' it up

Listen to the hook of Ariana Grande’s 2018 hit "No Tears Left to Cry" and one might easily mistake it for the usual upbeat fare that peppers the pop charts. Put into context, you find something more life-affirming — and more defiant.

Grande recorded the song as she struggled with grief in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing that killed 22 concertgoers during the artist’s tour of the United Kingdom.

Mike Donohue, a leadership coach and San Diego State University parent, believes songs like “No Tears Left to Cry” have a lot to teach us if we open our ears and minds.

“With this song, we can learn a lot about empathy and the other components of emotional intelligence, or what I like to consider emotional understanding,” he explains.

This fall, Donohue’s idea to explore the deeper meanings behind popular music and how that relates to one’s personal development comes to fruition with The Sound of Leadership, a series in LEAD 205: Exploring Leadership, offered by SDSU’s Leadership Minor.

The course, which will be taught by Leadership Minor director Lisa Gates, associate vice president and dean of students Randy Timm and others — with Donohue as a guest speaker — will feature a personal contribution from a member of a legendary rock band.

“The idea is that the message or inspiration of the artist might be able to sink in for students and be the foundation for our discussion about personal and leadership development,” says Donohue. “So why not get students excited at the beginning of the class with music, then dissect the lyrics and message that the artists are attempting to deliver? Then we can dive into our discussion of what that means to them.”

The Sound of Leadership was born from a conversation between Donohue and his friend Mike Dirnt, the bassist and co-founder of the four-time Grammy award-winning band Green Day. Donohue then brought the idea to Gates and the two have worked together over the past year to develop the course series.

Dirnt has since agreed to add his star power to the classroom, making appearances (either virtual or in-person) to discuss the meanings behind some of Green Day’s iconic songs. Nikki Stipp from the band Hooked Like Helen also is slated to appear.

When special guests aren’t present, students will discuss preselected songs that relate to concepts of leadership, such as personal character, a growth mindset, achieving success, authenticity, optimism, inclusive leadership practices and cultivating confidence. Donohue points to songs like “0-100” by Drake or “Clean” by Taylor Swift as examples. Students will also have an opportunity to bring songs of their choosing into the discussion.

“The Leadership Minor has always emphasized the art and science of leadership, and the approach to The Sound of Leadership is really representative of what we’re about,” Gates said. “We will draw from the research addressing the ways music impacts our brains, how it can change our dispositions or moods, and how it impacts our understanding of the world.”

Gates added she is also excited to build a creative and meaningful course series that might generate buzz among her students, many of whom she senses are still dealing with the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to bring in approaches that will help engage our students with their learning,” she said. “In a sense, we're teaching leadership by meeting them where they are.”

A partnership between SDSU’s College of Education and the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity, the Leadership Minor offers students from all majors an opportunity to explore leadership theory and opportunities to enact it in practice.

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