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Six Leadership Lessons from Jay-Z

By Walter Ward, Chief of Staff

I am a child of the 80s and 90s, and depending on what article you read, I am either the oldest of the millennials or the youngest of generation x. Either way, I grew up with hip hop and had the benefit of seeing my childhood and teen heroes grow and develop as people and business leaders.

An icon of that evolution is Sean Carter, better known as Jay-Z. Since entering the music industry in 1986, Jay Z has launched and invested in a number of successful business ventures while continuing to dominate the music industry with mega hits. I have been inspired by Jay-Z’s evolution and leadership. Here are the top six lessons I’ve learned from Jay-Z that have direct implications on my daily leadership and business acumen.

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” – 2005, Kanye West Diamonds are Forever

When Jay-Z belted this line in Kanye West’s 2005 song, Diamonds are Forever, the lyrics instantly resonated with me. The message is simple—don’t see yourself as a businessman, instead see yourself as a cash-flowing asset that you should invest in to increase your value.

This mentality has led me to see every aspect of my life—my career, health, style, education, soft and technical skills, and even my social experiences, as additives that I have progressively invested in to generate more worth and cash flow. I am considered young, especially by senior executive standards, but that 2005 Jay-Z perspective has led me into unique experiences that are valuable to my role today, which is an investment in my future.

“But I will not lose, for even in defeat. There’s a valuable lesson learned, so it evens up for me” – 2002, Jay-Z BluePrint2

The lesson here is obvious; you can find value in a loss. However, the implications of that lesson are not as clear. Many of us go through life fearing rejection and disappointment. Often, we do not see the value in losing and are playing defense. Defense helps us keep what we’ve acquired and shields us from the trauma that results from a setback. Unfortunately, being defensive cannot deliver us the big wins.

When we learn to value a perceived loss, it frees us to take more risks and thrive in the possibilities. Live life without fearing the outcome. This train of thought has allowed my career to carry me across the globe, expose me to great opportunities, and placed me in rooms that opened doors for the next opportunity.

“People respect success. They respect big. They don’t even have to like your music. If you’re big enough, people are drawn to you.” – Jay-Z Interview with Rick Ross

Such a heavy statement, but it’s true and the reason why people have favorite celebrities, sports teams, and superheroes. Humans are intuitively attracted to big ideas and success.

From a career and leadership perspective, we should be meticulous about cataloging how our actions impact business outcomes. The framework that I use is the frequency and impact of my actions. I discuss the duties of my job concerning the repetition and how they drive the business. That type of language is attractive to business leaders who understand.

It also means that the more you understand the big picture and articulate business strategy, the more leaders are attracted to you. An overwhelming majority of people are trapped in the tactical minutiae of their jobs. It is hard for them to see how the pieces connect all over.

No matter your job, if you can exhibit that you understand how your role drives the strategy, the more you will be seen as a leader.

“Excellence is being able to perform at a high level over and over again. You can hit a half-court shot once. That’s just the luck of the draw. If you consistently do it… that’s excellence.” – Jay-Z in Interview for Master Class

Excellence has become a popular term that ends up on a company culture slide so much that the actual definition becomes washed out. People rarely define what excellence means. Jay-Z’s quote gives us a new frame of reference for its true meaning. Consistently performing better than the average is excellence and having the mentality to become excellent is something that we should aspire to do. To be excellent, you need to know what the base standard is and go beyond consistently. If you carry the mentality for excellence into everything, it becomes your brand and what people expect.

“Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t” – 2009, Jay-Z The Blueprint 3

People tend to examine situations with bias formed from their personal experiences. As a consequence, a narrative alone can jade your understanding of an outcome. The lesson in this quote is that data does not have a slant (although its interpretation can). Numbers don’t lie—use stats to support your business decisions and lead with data to validate your impact and the value you bring to the table. Always strive to understand the empirical facts and the baseline data.

“All I got is dreams, but nobody else could see, nobody else believes, nobody else but me where are you victory? I need you desperately, not just for the moment, to make history.” – 2008, Jay-Z History

In the end, you must envision what your life and career will be. I encourage you to be as detailed as possible about your vision and not prescriptive. It’s impossible to think of all the steps and opportunities you need to become the version of you that you aspire to be. Keep an open mind to new opportunities that arise and be empowered to accept new challenges to aid your path toward excellence.

I believe that whomever you envision yourself to be and the type of work you do should be impactful to your team, your organization, and if you think big enough for our community and world. You will need that level of vision and inspiration to motivate you to perform consistently, to bring others into believing you are valuable. That level of self-determination and belief to become the leader that organizations, and the world, need us to be.