Rick Rubin – Leadership that believes in better

rick rubin and johnny cash

It’s all well and good listening to people talk about leadership. Seeing someone embody it, however, is infinitely more compelling.

I recently watched a film by BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe (now at Apple) about music producer Rick Rubin.

Rubin’s made a stamp on almost every aspect of music that I have enjoyed since the early 80s – the Beastie Boys’ Licenced To Ill, The Cult’s ElectricThe Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic, the reemergence of Johnny Cash in the 2000s and even more recently with Black Sabbath. He’s also worked with pop acts such as AdeleShakiraEminemEd SheeranJake Bug, the list goes on. And in my opinion there isn’t an artist yet who hasn’t sounded their best when working with Rick Rubin.


Therefore it’s strange to hear this legendary producer say, “It can be much better than my way…”. He wasn’t talking about ol’ blue eyes’ song, he was talking about his ideas, his process, his way.

It struck me that Rubin was more than a producer, he’s a host. In the same way that you might have friends over and want the food, the music, the lighting and the entertainment to be to just right – to create the perfect environment for a really great evening – Rubin does that for his bands in order to make a really good album.

I believe we can do this in public services  – we can do this to make better services.



Rubin is clearly a very good listener. Not only of the music but of his clients – listen to how Rubin reignited the musical spark in Johnny Cash. (Cash once said “I will always trust Rick because he believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself”) Rubin talks like an ethnographer, an adventurer, a raider of a lost art!

That’s not to say he hasn’t made mistakes. He admits to have taken an autocratic approach early in his career but those relationships suffered as a result. Over time he has learned to take a step back and capture “what makes the artist them”.

What’s also interesting is how he talks about stepping away from the process when he feels he is not needed – “…I want to be there whenever I am needed to be there to make it better…”.

Trust & investment

Is there anything more important to develop with the people we work with and the people we serve than trust and investment?

“I trust the artists I work with… I don’t want them to feel like they are making my record, I want them to feel like this is their record… and to be invested in it in a very personal way” – listen here.

Rubin talks about the importance of patience in the creative process. He talks about collaboration and the need for everyone concerned to contribute ideas. He also talks about how difficult it can be to translate ideas verbally and that the best way is to experience this ideas (especially the ones that sound bad because they often turn out to be the best ones).

beasties and rubin

As much as I love a lot of music no one ever died because an album didn’t make a release date. Music is important to a lot of us, but we are aware that there are other things that are much more important. Public services are literal lifelines to millions of people. Therefore, should we not treat the process of building and crafting services with at least as much care as Rubin takes over crafting a 45 minute album?

In most cases Rubin will have a lot of money to make these albums. But so do many other producers. Money will always be a factor, but what Rubin brings to the mix goes beyond cash (if you’ll pardon th…).

Make things better. Listen. Build trust and investment. Have patience.

And build relationships.

Rubin is without doubt a leader in the truest sense. The relationships that he has made through with his clients – and his audience – run very deep, and it’s unmistakable in the music.

Why shouldn’t we do that with services?


Welcome to the Real World

Matrix Agents in the code

Morpheus said it best when he first met Neo in person!

However, Neo’s alter ego, Mr Anderson, had previously been living life as a Duracell for deluded A.I. machines who had taken over the World and was getting out even less than the geeky-recluse had realised! Clearly not a real life!

So it nips my head to see “IRL” (in real life) used in reference to off-line activity, as if on-line activity is unrelated to anything real or valid. Like taking the blue pill!

And while it’s mostly well intentioned internet speak there’s a valid point here…

My social media activity is mostly limited to my this blog, Twitter, and Instagram. Occasionally I dip my toe elsewhere but these are my regulars. And I’m quite certain that what I post is real life.

below – Instagram post from July 2013

Instagram post july 2013Instagram for example: My tendency to take ‘snaps’ pre-dates digital capturing, let alone digital networks! It’s something that I’ve always done – an enthusiasm that was elevated by digital – first by the cameras and now by mobile and the ability to share on the spot!

What about Twitter? Well Twitter provides the ability to share widely what I do for a living; as often as not while I’m in the middle of doing it. But more than that it allows me to pepper that feed of activity with other stuff like, personality, links and likes, recommendations, etc. – it’s not all about me!
But if you need tangible evidence of its value then let me tell you that Twitter has brought me a lot of work over the years by making me visible to the people that matter.

Twitter Feed July 2013right – a snap shot of Twitter posts from July 2013

Collectively my blog posts, tweets and Instagrams’ all reflect real-life; as real as delivering a presentation; as real as bus-stop banter; as real as water cooler conversations! Not all of those conversations would I rate as valuable in themselves, but building real-life relationships is complex – it’s over time that the value emerges.

We also need to be careful of the message that we send to young people about how they use their time – a lot is invested through on-line communication and to demonise it as the root of all modern day social deficiencies understates the real issues (see update below).

Characterising off-line as real-life and on-line as meaningless un-reality is just daft. It suggests that our life on-line is always irrelevant and has no value and that all real-life (off-line) activity is implicitly genuine, relevant and valuable. No one can assume either of those states, off-line or on-line can be inherently genuine or in-genuine!

And of course, to drive the point home, those of us who have experienced the cross-over between on and off-line worlds will recognise the buzz from meeting an on-line contact in person. And that’s great because, clearly (as we’ve already learned from “The Matrix”), the combination of genuine relationship and in person is near impossible to beat.

But for as long as we’ve been sending letters, crafting smoke signals or banging on drums, the world simply hasn’t existed exclusively in in-person relationships. And while it’s not all good, my positive on-line experiences have resulted in: learning new skills; online collaborations; (and most significantly) food on the table!

So to underestimate the potential of connecting on-line is foolish; and tagging it IRL only perpetuates the myth.

Its 2013. We know better. Or do we?

UPDATE: Since writing this I saw a post relating to the tragic suicide of teenager Hannah Smith in the UK. It presents a balanced view on the relationship between the internet and bullying and, as someone who endured a (relatively short) stint of bullying at school, to me it rang true.

Included in the piece is a similar point regarding “IRL” and, in this context, adds significant weight to the argument for acknowledging on-line activity as ‘real life.