Music has a powerful way of bringing people together. There are countless movies centered around just that—think The Sound of Music, Footloose or, more recently, Coco. But one of my favorites is the comedy film School of Rock, where an underqualified substitute teacher trains a group of private school kids to compete in a rock band competition. Along the way, the teacher and students create lasting friendships and bond through the creative process.
The same happens in the real world. People connect through music whether it’s a bond over a shared favorite artist or song, or attending a dance that has the power to break the ice in a romance. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for a good icebreaker at networking events, discuss your favorite music. It never fails!)
In honor of World Music Day yesterday, we’re highlighting music industry icons who have changed the world through their music and beyond. These artists have touched millions with their songs, but also have provided valuable leadership lessons for leaders—whether it be through their philanthropic works, their entrepreneurial spirits or the passions they hold for what they do. Take heed of the accomplishments these six music leaders have made, and the leadership examples they’ve set through their works.
The Power of Purpose: Bono
“As a rock star, I have two instincts, I want to have fun, and I want to change the world. I have a chance to do both.”
Paul David Hewson, simply known as Bono, is the iconic frontman of the rock band U2, which has sold more than 170 million records and ranked No. 22 in Rolling Stone’s The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Widely seen as a rebel in his songwriting, Bono took his boundary-pushing mentality to his philanthropic work.
Bono used his song lyrics and stage presence to campaign for social and political change around the world, most notably to fight against poverty and preventable diseases. Unafraid of meeting combative issues head-on, Bono uses his celebrity status to advocate for underrepresented causes. He is co-founder of both ONE, a campaign against extreme poverty, and (RED), an organization dedicated to putting an end to AIDS.
Through all of his incredible, purpose-driven giveback, Bono serves as an excellent example of how leaders can use their talents to enact change where the world needs it most.
The Power of Creativity: Pharrell Williams
“I’m a fan of music, first and foremost. So I do things from the perspective of a fan.”
Though he has a few No. 1 hits to his name as an artist, Pharrell Williams climbed to the top of the music industry producing artists’ records from all genres. From his start as a rapper, singer and songwriter with The Neptunes, Pharrell focused his career on creating music people want to hear.
Much of Pharrell’s success came from producing records and singles for top stars and up-and-coming artists. He teamed up with artists such as Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Miley Cyrus, Gloria Estefan and Beyoncé to tap into new levels of artistry. A versatile producer, Pharrell is able to use his creative vision in multiple genres and styles.
Thanks to his creative nature, Pharrell has forged successful partnerships in both the music industry and the fashion world—he has his own clothing line, Billionaire Boys Club.
Through all of his creative ventures, Pharrell takes bold risks without fear of failure—a quality all leaders should strive for.
The Power of Servanthood: Lin-Manuel Miranda
“The fun for me in collaboration is, one, working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda is best known for writing, directing and originating Hamilton: An American Musical. More than just his talent, it’s his disruptive style that made him famous.
Both stage and film musicals have tried to break out of the mold of traditional Broadway or operatic music for quite some time (take Jesus Christ Superstar and Moulin Rouge!, for example), but Lin-Manuel took “untraditional” to a new level. His productions are heavy in hip-hop and feature rap battles between characters, much different than classic show tunes. He also uses nontraditional casting methods, finding actors of all ethnicities to portray characters (in Hamilton, for example, Lin-Manuel—Puerto Rican—starred as Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers who was of British descent).
Lin-Manuel is known for more than his brilliance onstage. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s destruction in the Caribbean last year, Lin-Manuel jumped to aid his homeland of Puerto Rico. He partnered with Google.org to raise money and awareness for the islands’ great need for reconstruction. He also used his line of officially licensed merchandise, TeeRico, to sell Puerto Rico-inspired shirts to raise funds.
Lin-Manuel sets a great example to leaders: Be brave and unafraid to break the mold of what’s usually done within your industry, and be a servant leader to your community.
The Power of Influence: Dolly Parton
“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.”
A bubbly singer-songwriter from East Tennessee, Dolly Parton’s humble beginnings took her to become the most-honored female country artist. But her charitable works and entrepreneurial endeavors always go back to Sevier County, Tennessee.
Dolly’s fame came in part due to her talent as a singer-songwriter, but also as a well-respected friend in the industry. Her good-hearted nature led her business ventures later in her career.
In 1986, Dolly became the co-owner of a small theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which she rebranded to Dollywood. The Appalachian-themed attraction sees nearly 3 million visitors each year and helped Pigeon Forge, in Dolly’s native Sevier County, become an economic hub.
In 1995, Dolly also founded her Imagination Library, a book-gifting program encouraging children’s literacy. Since then, the program has mailed books to nearly 105 million children in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Dolly’s ability to turn her charisma, uniqueness and talent into positive change and influence makes her a much-beloved music icon, business leader and philanthropist that fellow leaders can look up to.
The Power of Putting Others First: Sam Phillips
“If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything.”
In a shop on Union Avenue in Memphis, Sam Phillips introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the world and changed the sound of music forever. As founder of Sun Records, Sam was a true pioneer in the music industry.
He started his music career as a radio DJ in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he played music of both black and white artists, something out of the ordinary for 1940s in the Deep South. In 1950, he moved to Memphis aiming to discover and mold new artists and sound. During the early years of recording at Memphis Recording Service, Sam worked with amatuer artists such as B.B. King, focusing on blues music. Sam maintained his affinity for rhythm and blues music because it appealed to both white and black listeners.
Though he got his start recording black artists, Sam’s label Sun Records broke out when he signed Elvis Presley. Sam took his love for rhythm and blues and merged it with Elvis’ country twang to create a superstar. After Elvis, Sam signed Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Sam made a career out of setting the stage for others to shine. His best talent was recognizing others’ gifts and finding ways to show them off.
The Power of Believing in Your Vision: Sean “Diddy” Combs
“I think that you have to believe. That’s one of my biggest mantras, ‘Believe.’ I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in myself.”
Sean Combs, better known as “Puff Daddy,” “P. Diddy” or now “Diddy,” is an example of how a powerful belief in one’s self drives great success. Diddy worked from the bottom rung of the music industry ladder to become one of the richest hip-hop artists and a wildly successful businessman.
Diddy started as an intern at Uptown Records, helping to discover talent such as Mary J. Blige. After being let go from Uptown, he launched his own production company, Bad Boy Entertainment, with hip-hop legend The Notorious B.I.G. In the latter half of the 1990s, Diddy launched his own hip-hop career, with his debut single and album reaching No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
His music success spurred him to other ventures. He is an actor and took his eye for fashion to launch Sean John, a men’s clothing and footwear line. Diddy was named to Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40 in 2002 for his entrepreneurial enterprises and is estimated to be one of the top-grossing entertainers in the country.
Confidence is key as a leader—a quality Diddy has never been short of. Though he was fired from his first job, his belief in himself kept him going and eventually led him to his fame.