Five things Taylor Swift taught me about work and leadership

Taylor Swift

Source: AP/Evan Agostini.

Musically speaking, there’s a lot to like about Taylor Swift. As a teenager she reshaped the direction of country music. Then she managed the transition from country super-stardom to pop mega-stardom better than anyone else in history. Not surprising, given she’s a great performer and an engaging lyricist.

I think there’s a lot of Taylor that translates to the workplace too. And on that note, I give you, the top five things I learned from Taylor Swift about work and leadership.

1. Understand what you’re good at; do more of it

There’s a piece at the end of the song “Daylight” that sounds like a voicemail. The song crescendos before falling off to a static-filled spoken-word message. And there’s a great lyric in there: “I wanna be defined by the things that I love, not the things I hate, not the things that I’m afraid of.”

Working on things we care about matters. And I believe in the value of understanding our strengths and our passion — how we can harness what we’re good at and build on it. It’s especially powerful when you look at your team and understand who is drawn to doing certain things because they are especially good at them.

One of my favourite ways of doing that is to use the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment. You can check it out here. Essentially it helps people identify their key strength from 34 different themes. Once identified, you also receive a summary of what those strengths are, how they present themselves and what they mean to others.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously

Swift writes a lot of songs about her relationships and a how she feels about them. I. Mean. A. Lot. By 2012 she was used to being loudly criticised for centering her artistic output around falling in and out of love. A lot of that criticism was just plain sexism and Swift knew that. But she also knew that she could make a good song and make fun of herself a bit at the same time. Hence “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” her first number one on the pop charts.

Keeping ourselves humble and grounded matters. A sense of humour and self-deprecation can help us in the workplace. Having colleagues who make sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously is really important too. Check out this podcast with Simon Sinek, where they talk about this and the notion of confident humility at length.

3. Vulnerability matters

Because she had nothing better to do during the pandemic, Tay Tay put out two albums last year. “Mirrorball” isn’t my favourite song from either album (that would be “Invisible String”) but it is a cracker nonetheless. The song speaks to her relationship with fame that’s a bit different to the “Shake it Off”/’I’m invulnerable’ image she had courted for several years. With lyrics like: “And I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why, I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try try try, I’m still on that trapeze, I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me”, Swift seems to be saying maybe she isn’t invulnerable all the time. “Mirrorball” will never be a dance anthem. But its clever lyrics, and its subtlety and nuance make it worth a listen.

Work has changed too. The impression leaders often used to try to throw out was that they were the source of knowledge and wisdom and were never wrong. But that was never true. Being vulnerable in the workplace builds trust, and it is a key component in building high performing team. One of the things some workplaces are great at is learning, recognising mistakes and things we can do better. It’s an essential of good leadership. If you want to hear on that check out this Ted talk from Brené Brown, or her Netflix doco.

4. Dance to the tune of change

Swift moved to Nashville when she was 14 to pursue a career in country music. It worked. Her first three albums sold 23 million copies. By her fourth album, Red, she was ready to mix genres. It was a big change; a distinct move away from country music. She risked upsetting her very dedicated country fanbase. There’s no better example of this on Red than her song “I Knew You Were Trouble“. It has a bit of everything — lots of dubstep, a bit of wailing, a few country twangs thrown in and a whole big helping of pop confection. It’s chaotic, but it’s great because it’s chaotic.

Change is here to stay. Being versatile and having the ability to apply a wide range of skills to different problems is valuable. It’s really valuable for leaders. Understanding that different types of leadership skills should be deployed at different times is vital to growing a good team that gets smart things done. Check out this piece on versatile leaders for a sense of what I’m talking about.

5. Make deliberate choices

This one is all Taylor. There’s no song reference or lyric snipped for it. It’s hard not to admire Swift for the considered and deliberate choices she makes about her artistic endeavours and her career — whether it’s the switch from country to pop or her decision to re-record her first six albums as a way of re-asserting control over how masters of her songs were used. It doesn’t really matter what you think of the music, you have to admire a young woman making very well considered and incredibly astute decisions about her career.

That’s important for us too. No all jobs offer end-of-year bonuses or paid holidays to Europe for top performers. But many offer opportunities for growth. Investing in yourself is as equally important as it is valuable. We can all be Taylor in our own little way.

This article was first published on LinkedIn


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