At the end of a week where I attended a brain-agonizing three-day seminar about the evolution of leadership and management practices, I ran across this fascinating and detailed Newsweek interview with Rick Rubin, the veteran freaky music producer-slash-guru. Most reasonable music minds will acknowledge that he is the most important and influential music producer of the last 30 years.
From Def Jam Records and helping bring rap into the mainstream with LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys in the ‘80s to expanding the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ horizons in the ‘90s, to Adele and Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails in the 21st Century, Rubin has proven there is no genre or artist he can’t awaken, improve or revive.
Black Sabbath’s long-awaited reunion album, 13, which Rubin produced, is perched at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Another Rubin production, Kanye West’s Yeezus, will soon displace Black Sabbath in the top slot, giving Rubin two consecutive chart-topping records by two different acts. Few, if any, other producers have ever managed such a feat. (All quotes are from the Newsweek interview.)Rick Rubin is the Phil Jackson of the music industry, a leader whose success relies entirely on the quality of someone else’s product and perceived performance.
I get no thrill from hero-worshipping Rick Rubin. He looks like some California-bred Buddhist hippie fake whose entire aura is created from the boredom of having more money than he knows what to do with. The first time I encountered his name was on his remix of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and I hated it. I hated it because it sucked. Shortly thereafter, my attitude adjusted with Blood Sugar Sex Magic, a whirling 74-minute dervish that pushed the Red Hot Chili Peppers from “promising punks” to culture-shifting zeitgeists. “Suck My Kiss” is a ball-jarring, off-the-top-rung bodyslam masterpiece of rock music in an album full of Ali-esque uppercuts.
No matter how freaky his visage, Rick Rubin is a demigod producer. More importantly, he embodies most of what I admire and aspire to when it comes to ideas of leadership in the world of schools and education.
A great school leader (or teacher) sees the potential in people and hounds, pokes, prods, pulls on them until they see it in themselves. Rubin kept after Chuck D until he caved and formed Public Enemy. Rubin worked on License to Ill for several years before he was satisfied. It’s now considered by Rolling Stone as the greatest debut album of all time.
Just as fan. Making music that I want to hear. You’re so close to something when you write it that it’s hard to have any perspective on how it hits someone else. My job is to be a professional version of the outside world—a listener who is not attached to any of it, who doesn’t know the story of how it was written, who doesn’t know how it works, who doesn’t know why this is important to you.The best school leaders and teachers create products -- students, employees -- who help to build a school identity and culture that goes well beyond a single personality. Your success isn't about you.
Take a look at Rubin’s 30-year track record. Take a look at the variety, the ocean-wide swath of genre’s and talents. Then think about producers like T-Bone Burnett or Mutt Lange, Danger Mouse or Butch Vig. Their production work tends to be akin to giving those artists a tattoo. They overlay their own tastes and interests on the artist’s skin.
When you hear Mutt Lange songs, you know they’re Mutt Lange songs. The thumping drums. The pace. You line up his Def Leppard and Brian Adams and Shania Twain and Lady Gaga songs, and it’s glaringly obvious the same guy worked with them all. Lange songs are as distinct as a Jim Steinman song.
Rubin is entirely different. From one decade to the next, from one album to the next, he carries little baggage. I’m not sure any of us can truly appreciate what a talent that is, to wipe one’s mental slate clean, to remove the preconceptions and refuse to rely on what worked previously and focus only on The Now, only on the person we’re charged in that moment to help.
I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know. And the more that we can remove any baggage we’re carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what’s happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better. But it’s not the voice in your head. It’s a different voice. It’s not intellect. It’s not a brain function. It’s a body function, like running from a tiger.
You have to shut off all of those voices and look for these special moments—these moments that you accept you have no control over. So much of my job is to not think—to be open to what’s there, and then use my intuition to see where it takes me.The best school leaders also know how to manage and get the best of veterans. They know how to maximize the strengths of people who have “been there, done that” for decades but still have passion fueling their engine and still long to make an impact in their careers. Rubin led Black Sabbath to the top of the charts and reminded a foggy country why Johnny Cash was ever relevant in the first place.
People who’ve made a lot of records tend not to make records as good as the ones they made when they’re younger. When you’re young and you get to make your first record, or your second record, it’s the most important thing in your life. When you’re making your 10th record, or your 50th record, it doesn’t have that same … Yeah. It’s not, like, it. That’s one piece. Another piece is that there’s a cycle that’s dictated by the reality of being a touring artist [when you only have eight weeks between tours to make a record]. At some point in time the cycle takes over, and even though you’re not really ready to make the record during that window, it’s the only window you have, so you put it out. Cracks in the foundation start. And slowly, over time, the creative process gets eroded, and it becomes something that’s just a window in the schedule instead of the most important thing that drives the whole train.A great school leader is rarely an early adopter, nor does she think of technology or new educational theories as cure-alls for what ails the system. Rather, they see these things for their potential, and they evaluate the trade-offs. Rick Rubin knows that technology has hurt music at the same time it “improved” sound, but rather than trying to climb back into the past or deny change, he only focuses on minimizing the negatives of those new trends:
Technology makes it easy to get everything “right.” But if you rely on technology to get it right, you’re removing all of the human drama. The way most music is made today is parts are created and then played perfectly and then copied and pasted. Everything’s in time, everything’s in tune, but it’s not a performance. My goal was to get Black Sabbath back to performing together—to jamming—because they are experts at it.If you don't see some connections between the ways music and education have been harmed by modern-day "improvements," you're not paying attention (or don't care).
Education shouldn’t prioritize short-term gains, which is the ultimate flaw in NCLB and Common Core and testing testing testing. Education is a marathon with mind-numbing complexity. Rubin sees music similarly, as life insurance, not daytrading or house-flipping:
It’s impossible to build a music company as if you were selling shoes. It’s a different business. It has a different ebb and flow. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. You have to look at it as a longer-term game.These leadership notions might not have fueled the great leaders of the 20th Century, and leadership isn’t geometry. There is no perfect Point A to Point B method of leadership. For every Phil Jackson there’s a Vince Lombardi, and for every Steve Jobs there’s a Jack Welch.
Rick Rubin's leadership notions aren't the only ones that will prevail in the coming years, but I know what kind of person, what kind of leader I want to be one day, and I want that energy focused on making those around me better. Having my name in lights isn’t the endgame. Seeing others’ names in lights and knowing that I played some small part in developing or inspiring them to greater heights is what thrills me.
And I’m not unique. Most people who work in schools and love their jobs are in it for the same reasons, which are more about playing a part and making a difference than about fame and fortune. Rubin might not be in our business, but we could do worse than look to him as an example of the kind of leadership we’ll need as we advance into this new and ever-uncertain realm of education in the 21st Century.
Rubin even makes an asshat douchebag like Kid Rock better, the music equivalent of the Biblical miracle where the sun is frozen in the sky for several days. If you can improve Kid Rock one minute and Josh Groban the next, you can do anything.