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Three Communications Lessons from One of Heavy Metal’s Greatest Voices

Ronnie James Dio, Even In Death, Has Plenty to Teach Communicators and Business Leaders

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A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn. 

Today marks four years since the passing of the legendary heavy-metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who is best known for his work in “Rainbow” and “Black Sabbath” as well as his namesake band.

As a fan of heavy metal for nearly my entire life, I’ve always looked up to Dio for his dedication to this enduring genre, his frank demeanor and the passion he had for the global community (a “tribe,” really) of metal fans. For companies and brands, Dio offers lessons for staying relevant, becoming indispensable to your stakeholders and, in the end, having them miss you terribly if you were to leave. Here are three:

1. Growth and Renewal Through Fearless Experimentation and Change

In the 1950s, who would imagine that the voice of malt-shop-ready crooners “Ronnie and the Red Caps” would go on to perform overdriven paeans to magic, myths, witches and medieval history? No really… Dust off the ol’ Philco of your mind, let the tubes warm up and give this a listen.

Moving across decades from such saccharine melodies to the heavy rock for which he is most known, Dio showed a level of creative flexibility that simply cannot be explained by citing the kind of rudderless trend-chasing we see from so many other acts. (Witness the widespread sense of betrayal when Metallica adopted alt-music regalia for the Load and ReLoad albums in the late 1990s, or the way Celtic Frost fans received Cold Lake’s jarring glam-rock trappings.) When concept albums were long dismissed as products of self-indulgent excesses of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dio released one in 2000 — sung from the villain’s perspective and complete with an 18-minute narration! He truly and sincerely followed his vision, trends and fads be damned.

2. Keeping Fans at the Center of Your World

Frontwoman Lzzy Hale of the band Halestorm has the distinction of the “last act to open for Ronnie James Dio.” After a gig where Mr. Dio was signing autographs until the wee hours, Hale recalls:

“I told Ronnie, ‘We would all understand if you just wanted to get in your bus and go home.’ … And he turned to me and wagged his finger in my face. He’s like, ‘Lzzy, it’s a moment in time for all of us, and you may never remember the gig you played at or the people’s names, but they will remember meeting you for the rest of their lives. So you make it good for everybody.'”

Community managers might feel like they have a 24/7 job and, in many ways, they’re absolutely right. Audiences don’t sleep and, truth be told, they often expect the same of the people who represent them online. If you show your community you will be available to them, serve as their advocate, and treat them with respect, you’ve created a valuable bond that will continue to pay dividends.

3. Leadership Through Humility

In a dimly remembered and possibly apocryphal story told to me long ago, Dio was on tour and, at one stop, everyone was loading into the bus from the hotel. After taking a headcount, various bandmates, managers, roadies and hangers-on asked, “Where’s Ronnie?”

What happened? Was this perhaps evidence of the stereotypical lack of punctuality that people tend to ascribe to a lead vocalist, of the kind that Axl Rose made famous? Most certainly not: It turned out Ronnie was the guy who had been holding the hotel’s door open for everyone that whole time!

Truly, “The Last In Line” and, in this particular case, that’s not a bad thing either. While he was well-known as rigorously committed to his musical vision (a commitment perhaps partially responsible for at least one protracted, public feud) most seem to agree that his humility endeared him to fans and associates alike. This, I believe, is Dio’s most powerful lesson to us all, especially those of us who work to bring companies and communities together.

As to this most important of Dio’s leadership qualities, we’ll end with a final remembrance as told by author Fred Pollard:

metalcube“He had great respect for nature and humankind and the intrinsic worth of every human being on the planet. He viewed everyone as an equal, no matter how famous he got, and would openly say this when a fan was so nervous that he or she was shaking when they met him. He was humble to a fault.”

RIP, Ronnie.

Based in Chicago, Phil Gomes is a senior vice president in Edelman’s Digital practice. His taste in cube décor says the rest.

Image by Diego Torres Silvestre.
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