Wise Words from the Dead

The situation is the boss.

That’s a concept I just learned from watching the Grateful Dead documentary ‘Long Strange Trip’ on Amazon Prime. It was the philosophy adopted by the musicians and crew once tour manager Sam Cutler left in 1974. The band’s actual boss, Jerry Garcia,

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was a strict anti-authoritarian and refused to acknowledge himself as the leader.

“Who was in charge?” director Amir Bar-Lev asks off camera.

“Well, I’m so glad you asked that,” answers former roadie Steve Parish, whose size and intensity might be frightening if his voice wasn’t such a dead-on Tommy Chong. “Because I came up with this, man.”

When promoters or cops or whoever would demand to know who was in charge of the Grateful Dead, Parish “came up with this saying – the situation is the boss.

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There were times when I was in charge of everything. There were times when Jerry was in charge of everything. Then, at another time, it would be someone else.”

Parish takes it to an entirely philosophical level.

“Then, it would be a truck that had a blown carburetor. That carburetor was the boss at that moment.”

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In other words, it doesn’t matter who thinks they’re in charge when the truck breaks down. Until that carburetor is replaced, it dictates the movement and schedule of everyone involved with that tour.

Why are we stopped? Ask the carburetor.

How long is this going to take? Ask the carburetor.

The second it’s replaced, though, a brand new boss takes over.

The same goes for the rest of us.

You might have a supervisor at work who thinks she’s in charge, but at any given moment, your project deadline is more your boss than she is. You might have a teacher at school who thinks he’s the big cheese of your class, but make no mistake about it – the upcoming assessment test is the total boss of him and you both. Maybe your doctor thinks he’s the head honcho at the hospital, but tell that to the bossy heart attack that’s calling the shots.

The same goes for parents.

There are times when I believe I’m the boss of my five- and eight-year-olds until the true boss-of-the-moment is revealed. Like the time when one of them puked on the other one’s head.

(as described in:

Arctic Puking

Living Near the Arctic Circle is Difficult, but So Is Parenting)

There’s no crueler big chief than kid barf, but thankfully it was only in charge of our house for about an hour.

The situation is always the boss.

Jerry Garcia had no interest in calling the shots for his band, though the other Grateful Dead musicians and roadies and every one of the thousands of deadheads saw him as their king, their anointed ruler.  Nevertheless, Garcia refused to wear the crown right up to the day he died of a heart attack on August 9, 1995. He was always their leader, but he led with his guitar and his passion for playing music. He didn’t want to be the sole decider, the power man who sits at a big desk and controls his universe. Garcia’s only desire in life was to do the one thing he felt he was meant to do, which was to get away with being a full-time musician for just one more day. Every day.

Garcia’s refusal to be the Grateful Dead’s boss was frustrating.

Not to him, but to anyone else who wanted to know who the hell was in charge of this ‘in the moment’ out of control group of talented adult children?

Ask the LSD.

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It’s not easy to run an organization by committee – especially if that committee has been huffing nitrous all night – but Garcia made sure that’s exactly how decisions were made with the Dead. The result was a band that defied the norms of the music industry by dedicating its energy to doing concerts worldwide and deciding that making a studio album is nothing more than “recording an ad for the band.”

The same goes for the rest of us.

Be the boss when the situation dictates that someone with your skills or equipment or passion needs to step up, but then be willing to step down when your moment is over. Though your title might say ‘supervisor’ or ‘director of operations’, a great leader will always yield their power to whatever’s needed to accomplish the bigger goal.

The situation is the boss, and the rest of us have to do whatever the boss demands.

And who trembles the most at the thought of that happening?

Ask the American leaders come election time, November 2018.

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  • Mike Lukas

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