Rick Rubin is one of music’s most influential people. He’s produced some of the worlds greatest albums, saved the careers of flailing musicians and created two of the worlds most iconic brands.
Producing over 180 albums with an incredibly eclectic discography: from Neil Diamond to Slayer, Kanye West to Johnny Cash and System of Down to Run DMC. Chances are, you’re a Rick Rubin fan without even realising it.
But, being able to work with all these larger than life musicians at their most vulnerable state has given him a great insight in to being a leader. How to bring the best out of people, when they’re feeling their worst. To quote the late, great Johnny Cash, ‘I’ll always trust Rick because he believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself.’
Here’s ‘X’ Lessons in Leadership we can learn from DJ Double RR, gleaned from his most recent interview with Zane Lowe:
1. Don’t Be Afraid To Take Risks
‘Every step of the way, people tried to talk me out of what I was going to do next’.
When he first took on the Rap Scene, after starting up Def Jam records from his dorm room – people said, ‘Why Rick? You’re into Punk!’, yet without that first step, artists like Run DMC and LL Cool J would never have changed the face of modern Hip-Hop. Then, at the time he was starting his American label, post all the rap success, people asked ‘Why would you want to sign a rock artist? You’ve had so much success with Rap’.
But he still went ahead and did it. Because, it felt right to him. It seemed the correct direction to go in order to push himself and his fans in the right direction.
Without him taking those risks though, we would never have had iconic albums like ‘Californication’ by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, or Johnny Cash’s ‘American Recordings’.
Part of being a leader is trusting yourself and having the strength of resolve in the decisions you make. Not being scared of the unknown, or failing if you try. As a leader, it’s your job to pave the way for your followers and show them that risks are there to be taken – even when people say you’re stupid to do so.
2. Have A Clear Vision
Rick’s focus was always on the art, no matter what the label or the marketing teams said. His relationship with Russel Simmons was strained in the battle between Business and Artistic Merit – and Rick chose art every time.
Sales figures and pie charts have never meant much to him – all that mattered was that he could put out the best possible version of the CD for the fans to hear. His vision, whether working with someone at the start of their career, or coming to the end has always been the same, ‘It’s all about the music’.
And, every decision he makes has to fall in line with it.
As a leader you need to ask yourself, ‘Whats my vision?’. No matter what you want to lead in, you should have a clear view of where it is you’re going, or what you’re trying to achieve. Something to galvanise everyone that’s a part of it, so that you can work towards it.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Sir Ken Robinson wants to change Education. And Rick Rubin wants to create the best possible music.
What’s your vision?
3. Know When To Change Course
Rick has been an avid risk taker throughout his career, but he’s also smart enough to know when something isn’t working out. As I mentioned before, his relationship with Russel Simmons was strained in the battle of Business over Music – so he confronted the problem and decided to leave Def Jam Records.
It wasn’t done out of malice or from a position of bad will, but because it was the right thing to do for their futures.
As a leader, it’s up to you to understand when a battle isn’t being won or when you’re energy is being expended too much in the wrong direction – and take a step away, or change the course of the problem.
You wouldn’t steer your car in to a tree on purpose, and you shouldn’t do it with yourself and those who follow you. Be big enough to understand when something is wrong and change the course.
4. Your Way Isn’t The Only Way
Rick’s way of producing has taken him to the top of his game and shown genres in a whole different light. But in his late twenties and early thirties, many relationships with artists broke down because he fought to make sure it was done his way.
In his later years though, Rick stopped pushing his way on the artists, and started asking them what their way would be. Going through the band, taking their idea’s and going with the best idea that came along – even if it didn’t match up with his way in any way at all.
Better albums. Better relationships. Better ideas.
A leader’s aim is to facilitate the people they work with. To bring the best out of the resources they have to work with. Most of the time, your idea won’t be the strongest, or someone in your group will have a better suggestion. Put pride to one side, and listen to those around you – they have the answer you’re looking for.
5. Not Everybody Is Going To Like You
Rick may be one of the most revered music producers alive, but he isn’t without his critics. Corey Taylor of Slipknot is extremely Anti-Rick, even though he produced one of their greatest albums to date.
But, Rick takes it in his stride.
‘It’s strange, me and ‘The Clown’, the leader of the band, were so much on the same page – but the rest of the band, not so much.’
Not everyone is going to love everything you do, every step you take or every decision you follow through on. You can be the best in the world at what it is that you do, but people still won’t like it. It’s impossible to please everybody and appeal to everyone on every level.
So stop trying.
A Leader knows who their followers are, what their vision is – and sticks to it. Regardless of whether it pleases people or not. As long as you can be proud of the outcome, and it’s done for the right reasons, nothing else matters.
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