Taylor Swift an innovator? You bet! Here are her 8 leadership lessons

This week marks the release of Taylor Swift’s eleventh album. The American singer has become a worldwide pop sensation. Her stormy path to success contains many lessons for business leaders. Innovation expert Simone van Neerven lists eight.

Follow your heart

In 2023, Taylor Swift was named TIME Person of the Year. That year, she was the most streamed artist on both Spotify and Apple Music. When she posts on Instagram, she receives an average of 7.8 million comments – more than any celebrity in the world. And an estimated $5.7 billion will be added to the US economy as a result of her Eras Tour.

Until she received the 2023 iHeartRadio Innovator Award, she had never considered herself an innovator. “I never a single time woke up in the morning and thought things need to be innovated and I’m going to be the one that does it. But what I did do was try to make the right decision for me at the time whether or not it had ever been successfully done before.” she said as she won the prize.

Her advice: “I really, really want everyone to know, especially young people, that the hundreds or thousands of dumb ideas that I’ve had are what led me to my good ideas. You have to give yourself permission to fail.”

8 insightful lessons from Taylor Swift

It’s evident to everyone who has studied Swift’s life that things did (and do) not come easy. Here are the eight most important (innovation) lessons you can learn from her:

#1: Keep your cool

Achieving a one-off success is not easy, let alone maintaining that success and scaling it. It’s easy to lose oneself in that temporary success. At the early beginning of Swift’s career, when she achieved her first success and scored her first big hit, she was extremely proud yet very determined: “Yes, it’s happening! But how am I going to make it last?”.

#2: Know who you're doing it for

Without people who love your product, your business has no ‘raison d’etre’. Swift knows like no one else how to build an emotional connection with her fans and she does this where her fans are: online. Over the years she has created a huge fan base and regularly likes, comments and reshares posts from her fans. Her communication is personal and very relatable, which makes her fans feel like she is one of them.

#3: Understand what's going on around you

If you don’t keep it up, you will fall out of grace. The music industry has changed enormously in recent years. These days, anybody may make and release an album, unlike the days when success was limited to those who had a record company deal. This is demonstrated by Billie Eilish, who recorded her Grammy-winning first album in her brother’s bedroom using equipment and software that cost less than $3,000.

Swift is very aware of the growing significance of storytelling. With her songs, which are usually authentic stories from her personal life, she touches a lot of people. By being so open and honest, she continues to build that emotional bond with her fans, who identify with her songs.

#4: Build up the tension

People are obsessed with mysteries and secrets and they don’t give up till they find the answers. Swift uses this very cleverly. She is obsessed with ‘easter eggs’, little jokes or hidden messages that she includes in her music videos, the lyrics of her songs, her posts on Instagram and even the outfits she wears. Large groups of fans are constantly trying to discover and decipher the easter eggs, and all is shared on social media. This creates a continuous buzz around Taylor Swift.

#5: Slow down to speed up

To stay relevant, sometimes you have to take a step back and rest. In 2016, Swift almost completely disappeared from the radar for over a year. She had completely lost herself and realised that she had become the person everyone wanted her to be. She solved her eating disorder, picked herself up and made a spectacular comeback with the album ‘Reputation’, which is her second most successful album to date.

#6: Scribble down all your ideas and hunches

Products and services are rarely created linearly; instead, they are often a combination of a number of separate ideas and hunches. Swift records voice messages or jots down ideas, melodies, or short phrases when they pop up in her head. She later chooses the best ones to include in a brand-new song.

#7: Use setbacks as a motivator

When you are successful, expectations are high. But things don’t always turn out the way you want them to. The way you handle things can make all the difference. After winning two Grammy Awards for Best Album, Swift’s new album was not nominated in 2018. She responded calmly rather than completely breaking down, “This is good. This is fine. I just need to make a better record.”

During that time she was also in conflict with her former record company, which owned the rights to her first six albums and forbade Swift to use her own music. She was in complete distress, but instead of meekly accepting her fate, she took matters into her own hands. She decided to re-release the songs as ‘Taylor’s version’, something that had never been done before by such a major artist.

#8: Just be kind

Building relationships is essential for long-term success. From an early age, Swift felt it was important to just be kind. That almost proved to be her downfall. Her kindness also made her vulnarable and as her popularity increased, so did the criticism, which she took hard. But the time out in 2016 helped enormously. She learned that treating others cruelly or being unkind doesn’t suit her. Nowadays, she ignores what others think or say about her as much as possible. She is well-known for her generosity and for following her heart. “Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

Innovator's mindset

Being in the spotlight every day certainly doesn’t make life easier. Swift had to learn many things the hard way. If you deep-dive further into her life, you will learn many more insightful lessons. But there’s no question that she has the mindset of an innovator: “I’m intimidated by the fear of being average.”

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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