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?


Plastic Leadership – file under ‘punk’

Have you seen the state of leadership today? It’s like punk never happened…
What we need is more Plastic leadership!


It’s almost 40 years since an art school drop-out, with a clothes shop on London’s Kings Road, kick started the English ‘punk’ scene. In 1976, punk was defined by, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. It was The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. It was three (self taught) chords on a cheap guitar.

The rock ’n’ roll scene at the time was considered by some to be elitist, safe and/or irrelevant – Johnny Rotten (lead singer in The Sex Pistols) was famously spotted by Malcolm McLaren wearing a home modified “I hate” Pink Floyd t-shirt.

But in braking the rules, punk created a few of its own.

The 90s brought with it teenagers who were less familiar with those rules. While they were ‘into’ The Sex Pistols, they were also into ‘rock dinosaurs’ like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath – simply because no one told them they couldn’t.

“Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.”

— Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)

So why the history lesson in punk? Well, punk was misunderstood – and leadership has suffered the same fate…

“Punk was defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.”

– David Byrne (Talking Heads)

Punk (to the uneducated) was perceived as being nothing but sneering, shouting and loud guitars.

But guess what – Leadership is still considered by some to be reserved for line managers, CEOs, prime ministers, etc…

Leadership has come to be about changing the world – and as a consequence it’s become unattainable.

“Punk became a circus didn’t it? Everybody got it wrong. The message was supposed to be: Don’t follow us, do what you want!”

– John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols)

Everybody got it wrong with leadership too. Leadership has become a circus of its own, stuffed full of it’s own glorified ring masters!

Real leadership isn’t about hierarchy. Real leadership creates opportunities for individuals – it allows everyone to take responsibility.

“A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’ So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’ So he kicks over a garbage can and says ‘That’s punk?’ and I say ‘No, that’s trendy!’”

— Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)


Great leadership makes leaders, not followers.

Derek Sivers, in his TED talk ‘Starting a movement’, says “A leader needs to be prepared to stand up and be ridiculed. It takes guts to truly stand out.” Standing out may give you the appearance of ‘a loan nut‘.

“[Punk] was something which brought people together, so they realised something was possible”

– Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks)

also points out that leadership is over glorified and he demonstrates the loan nut doesn’t become a leader until he gets his first follower – a leader in their own right. Without that follower, he simply remains a lone nut!

Pretenders and poseurs

But in amongst the genuine leaders there are also pretenders.

Pretenders in punk subculture were labelled ‘poseurs’ – they were not tolerated.

Maybe it’s time to expose the leadership poseurs – they’re easy to spot:

  • They don’t value their staff
  • They don’t collaborate
  • They don’t give time to other people’s ideas
  • The hold onto responsibility rather than share it
  • They take credit for other people’s work
  • They would rather manage than motivate

I’m not saying punk is about leadership, and I’m not saying leadership is punk. However, we do need to think differently about how we understand leadership and how we apply it to ourselves as individuals. If you are aware enough to recognise a poseur then you probably have a good idea how to turn some of those problems around.

“The whole punk ethic was do-it-yourself… When they said that anybody can do this, I was like, ‘OK, that’s me.’”
– Michael Stipe

‘Posing’ punk aren’t the end of the world but ‘pretend leaders’ can be devastating! In short, we need more people to take leadership and apply some ‘do-it-yourself’ punk ethic.

And this is where Plastic Leadership comes in.

Now, I understand the word ‘Plastic’ may make it sound ‘fake’ – but nothing could be further from the truth – this is the real deal. Let me introduce you…

Plastic Bertrand

plastic bertrand

On appearances alone Plastic Bertrand didn’t quite convince as a punk – however, his 1977 hit, “Ça plane pour moi”, is one of my favourite songs of all time. But I was six years old – what do I know?

Listen instead to what Joe Strummer had to say:

I don’t like saying, “You’re a punk and you’re not.”

There was a record out there called Ça plane pour moi by Plastic Bertrand, right? And I guarantee you if I had to play it for you right now you’d go, “Right! That is rockin!”

Now, if you were to say to any sort of purist punk, “This is a good punk record,” they’d get completely enraged. But Plastic Bertrand, whoever he was, compressed into that three minutes a bloody good record that will get any comatose person toe-tapping, you know what I mean?

By purist rules, it’s not allowed to even mention Plastic Bertrand. Yet, this record was probably a lot better than a lot of so-called punk records.”

So, roughly translated, Joe Strummer was saying that your leadership could be better than most so-called leaders! But what does band mate Mick Jones think?

“I came into the punk scene because punk stayed with you, it has taught you something. A lot of the other music of the time left you as it found you.”

— Mick Jones (The Clash)

Don’t leave people as you found them – have an impact. You know what to do – value people and make them feel valued – collaborate – listen – try other people’s ideas – share responsibility – reward good work – enable and motivate – take the initiative, and in turn, inspire someone else to lead too.

So – I think we’ve established a ‘title’ doesn’t make you a leader, any more than green hair makes you a punk. It’s demeanour, not dress. It’s ethic, not ethnicity. It’s attitude, not platitudes. So remember Joe Strummer and his attitude to Plastic Bertrand…

Plastic leadership – don’t leave home without it!