The Right Approach: Leadership Lessons I Learned From Sonny Barger

Countless books have been written about the great leaders throughout history who have served as role models for generations of business executives. But what about the lessons that can be learned from the names you won’t typically find in the business section of your local bookstore? Much can be learned from them, too. In this column, I discuss leadership lessons I learned from Sonny Barger.
For over 50 years, Ralph Hubert “Sonny” Barger presided over one of the most violent and successful operations in organized crime history: the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC). Born on October 8, 1938, Barger’s mother left him with his alcoholic father and older sister when he was just four months old. His violent tendencies surfaced early with several school suspensions for assaulting teachers and fighting with his classmates. In 1955, he enlisted in the army at age 16 and was discharged 14 months later when it was discovered that he had forged his birth certificate to be able to join. 

After returning from the Army, Barger rode with some small local motorcycle clubs but quickly left, disappointed in the lack of “brotherhood” and courage in the membership—two attributes that would become guiding principles of the Hells Angels. He began riding with some friends who shared his vision, and one of the bikers, Boots Don Reeves, wore a patch he had found in Sacramento of a small skull wearing an aviator cap with a set of wings. Boots suggested they name their new club the Hells Angels after the patch. They went to a local trophy shop and had a set of patches made in April of 1957, not knowing that their actions that day would be the origin of one of the most notorious motorcycle clubs in history, and one that is still going strong today. 

At the time, there were numerous independent Hells Angels motorcycle clubs throughout California, often not even knowing about each other. Barger founded the Oakland Chapter of the HAMC in 1958 as president and quickly moved up the ranks to become the national president. Sonny Barger is widely credited with organizing the disparate groups under one “mothership,” and for the tremendous international growth under his leadership. Barger also engineered the movement of the HAMC from crimes against public order to organized crime for profit.

Barger organized the HAMC like a traditional business with an organizational structure, including chapter and national positions of president, vice president, treasurer, intelligence officer, and sergeant in arms (security). Members pay fees, hold fundraisers, and also make money legitimately. They trademarked their images and make a significant amount of money selling trademarked merchandise like T-shirts and other branded gear. The Hells Angels are big business, and while exact numbers are difficult to attain for obvious reasons, it is thought that worldwide revenue is in the billions of dollars.

Today, the HAMC has over 2,500 members in over 200 charters across 29 countries and six continents. The Hells Angels’ brand is so strong that they have actually become a business, formally incorporated in both the U.S. and Canada. Local, federal, and international law enforcement agencies allege that the Hells Angels are in the business of a range of illicit activity, including drug distribution, trafficking of firearms and stolen goods, prostitution, arson, robbery and other violence, extortion, and money laundering. In 2011, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security added The Hells Angels to a list of criminal organizations that includes the Mafia, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese syndicate Yakuza. 

At the age of 77, Sonny Barger remains an active member of the Hells Angels in the Cave Creek Arizona Chapter since moving there from Oakland in 1998. In the interest of full disclosure, the Hells Angels claim they are just a group “of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, organize social events, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies.”

Lesson #1: Great Leaders Know They Don’t Have All the Answers
“Leaders accept dissent. The tyrant goes it alone.” –Sonny Barger

Modern Business Application
In any business organization, a leadership mistake may result in a financial loss, product failure, or employee defection. In Sonny Barger’s world, a leadership mistake may result in people dying. These kinds of stakes certainly come with their own set of elevated pressures and challenges, and business can take a lesson from Barger’s masterful leadership under extreme conditions.

Many leaders surround themselves with extremely bright and loyal followers who either are uncomfortable with disagreement or have chosen sycophancy from a political standpoint. Truly great leaders have the courage and confidence to surround themselves with the most honest people. Autocrats are always right because they insist they are. They rarely listen to anyone other than themselves anyway. Leaders listen and act accordingly. 

We are taught that conflict is bad and should be avoided, and most certainly conflict can be destructive and create dysfunction in an organization. However, an environment that encourages new ideas, viewpoints and constructive criticism can turn conflict into a very powerful decision-making tool. This is not to say that a leader will always, or even occasionally, heed the advice of trusted advisors, but a great leader will welcome this discussion as a means to making the best possible decision for the organization. What frequently happens is that in the course of a healthy discussion with constructive dissent, differing perspectives will organically generate thoughts and ideas that would not have occurred to anyone on their own.
Leadership Nuggets

  • Create an environment that encourages constructive dissent
  • Don’t be afraid to shake up the status quo
  • 1 + 1 = 3
  • Don’t confuse honest dissent with disloyalty or subversion
  • Diversity of opinion makes us smarter; groupthink makes us dumber
  • Harmony is overrated
  • Express disagreement respectfully, always
  • Exercise an open mind; use the Socratic method to encourage critical thinking
  • Ask for advice when you need it, and listen when it is offered
  • Accept genuine dissent and criticism as it’s intended and learn from it
  • Remember that disagreement does not equal disloyalty
  • Listen first, talk second
  • Sometimes, the best decisions are made by coloring outside the lines
  • Part of a leader’s job is to play the role of devil’s advocate
  • Conflict is an unavoidable part of human nature; great leaders manage conflict to drive positive organizational improvement

Lesson #2: Create an Environment of Empowerment
“We learn from our mistakes—pure and simple. Most of us can only improve after we know what it feels like to have screwed up. You have to give your people the freedom to screw up.” –Sonny Barger
Modern Business Application
This may seem like an odd statement coming from the leader of a band of ruthless criminals, but Sonny understood that ruling with an iron fist and instilling the fear of failure just wouldn’t work. Whether you are leading a group of tough and violent bikers or a team of factory workers, to be productive and creative, people need the freedom to make their own decisions, even when they are wrong. Expecting people to come up with the only solution acceptable to the leader is not empowerment; it is called politics, which is counterproductive.
Leadership Nuggets

  • Training and resources build the foundation for an empowered environment
  • Don’t micromanage; encourage empowerment but require accountability
  • Clearly define roles and boundaries to avoid inefficiency through redundancy
  • Challenge your employees, align on objectives, and then get out of their way
  • Give credit where credit is due, taking credit for others’ accomplishments will  
destroy an empowering environment
  • Focus on results, not just actions; people must be made to feel like owners and entrepreneurs of their process, project, etc.
  • Don’t just celebrate success; also celebrate the employees who failed but took  
a calculated risk
  • Delegation is not empowerment unless accompanied by the authority, resources, and support required to be successful
  • Providing continual feedback, both positive and constructive, is a key building block for improvement and future success
  • Remove barriers that limit employees to act in an empowered way
  • Transparency builds trust; share pertinent information early and often
  • Develop an empowering leadership style that nurtures, coaches, mentors, encourages and supports, even (especially) in difficult situations
  • Training + trust = empowerment
  • Demonstrate the calculated risk-taking behavior you want your teams to emulate
  • Communicate the vision, goals, and objectives so that everyone involved is on the same page

In Closing
Being a Harley enthusiast for over a dozen years, I have been fascinated with the outlaw biker culture, in general, and Sonny Barger, in particular. During my research into the man and his exploits, it became clear to me that the leadership skills Sonny Barger has honed over the past half-century managing the international Hells Angels organization can be just as effective in today’s business environment.  

This column originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of PCB007 Magazine.



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