Apple’s top music exec, the man behind Eminem and U2, wants you to stop believing your bullshit

Nobody wants to work for an arrogant leader.
Nobody wants to work for an arrogant leader.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Great rappers tend to offer up solid career advice. In an interview sampled on Jay-Z’s “My First Song,” The Notorious BIG advises, “The key to staying on top of things is to treat everything like it’s your first project, know what I’m sayin? Like it’s your first day, like, back when you was an intern.” Even when you’re a powerful leader at the top of your field, he suggests, you should keep the mindset of a rookie. Or as Kendrick Lamar recommends, “Be humble.”

The wisdom of that advice was apparent in a recent Esquire interview with Jimmy Iovine, the legendary record producer and co-founder of Interscope Records who has worked with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and U2. Refusing to sit idly by as the music industry crumbled, Iovine founded Beats with Dr. Dre in 2008, sold the headphone company to Apple for $3 billion in 2014, and joined the tech behemoth to help launch Apple Music.

The secret to his success would seem to be his humility. A running theme emerges Iovine’s interview with organizational psychologist Adam Grant: This is a man who knows that in order to do good work, you have to put other people before yourself. Here are a few actionable, psychology-backed lessons from his career that apply to leaders across all industries.

Treat your colleagues like “professors”

Too many managers act as if they have all the answers. By contrast, Iovine is known for being ambitious—for his musicians, not for himself. He tells Grant that this generosity stems from an early realization of all the skills and talents that he didn’t bring to the table:

“Over four or five years, I did six albums with three people: John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith. I felt that if I could care as much about their music as they did, I could be useful to them. I really cared about their music and their lives. I had no skills. These incredible people allowed me into their lives, into touching their music at such a high level, you’d better take care of this and respect this. They were my three professors.”

Iovine’s management philosophy, despite his influence over some of the world’s highest-grossing artists, revolves around being of service to others rather than seeking personal gain. By positioning himself as an eternal apprentice, he focuses on cultivating others’ strengths and dissolving the barriers posed by their weaknesses.

Prioritizing collective goals over individual advancement is the essence of humble, effective leadership, says Russell Johnson, a management professor and organizational psychologist at Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. “You have to think ‘What can I do to help my team develop, grow, and become better performers,'” he says, “rather than ‘What’s in it for me?'” Iovine echoes this strategy with his professional mantra: “It’s not about you.”

This kind of humility is proven to increase employees’s perception of their leader as honest, trustworthy, competent, and confident. This, in turn, increases motivation: Under arrogant leaders, employees do the bare minimum necessary for their jobs, says Stanley Silverman, dean and professor of social science at The University of Akron. But under humble leadership, employees go above and beyond their responsibilities, whether that means helping others, suggesting new and innovative ideas, or volunteering for less desirable activities. All of that increases companies’ productivity and profits.

Leaders who dedicate themselves to others tend to benefit personally too, says Johnson. For example, a professor who really cares about helping her doctoral students learn to conduct excellent research will wind up publishing more articles with her as the co-author. 

Shatter your “rearview mirror”

It’s hard to imagine staying humble after selling Beats to Apple for $3 billion and capturing 40% of the headphone market. But Iovine rejects the notion that success guarantees more success:

“I don’t have a rearview mirror… Just because you did something once doesn’t mean anything. You have to be willing in your heart to begin again every day. The minute I’m not willing to do that, I will retire. When we did Beats, we had to begin again. Nobody at Best Buy knew who we were. Did they care we had produced a record? They didn’t give a shit. Don’t believe your own bullshit. If I were going to teach a course, it would be called Don’t Breathe Your Own Exhaust.”

This philosophy captures the distinction between self-confidence and arrogance. Truly self-confident people, like Iovine, are aware of their previous successes and believe in their potential, but they’re always focused on what lies ahead—not what they’ve already achieved. Arrogant managers, by contrast, feel that their accomplishments make them superior, and can’t resist reminding their colleagues of their inferiority, says Silverman.

Interestingly, Silverman and Johnson’s research shows that arrogant managerial behavior is actually correlated with lower intelligence and self-esteem. The opposite is true for humble managers.

And while arrogance stifles innovation, as arrogant leaders refuse to consider changing their surely-superior ways, self-confidence facilitates calculated risk-taking. Take Iovine’s multi-billion dollar discovery: “At the height of Interscope, a nineteen-year-old kid said to me, ‘I’ve got a tape of a white rapper.’ I said, ‘Give it to me. I’ll give it to Dr. Dre.’ That was Eminem.”

“Bet on” colleagues with whom you disagree

The way a leader reacts to conflict is a true test of their competence, says Silverman. Arrogant leaders ignore criticism, surround themselves with sycophants, and punish those who challenge them. Humble leaders seek feedback, and have fun doing so.

“I play mental games with myself,” explains Iovine, when asked how he handles creative disagreements. “David Geffen [the co-founder of DreamWorks Animation] and I disagree a lot. I bet on his answers a little more than my own. I say, This guy’s really smart. I think he’s completely wrong, but I’m going to try it anyway.

By embracing an opinion different from their own, bosses like Iovine inspire intrinsic motivation in their employees. Workers know that not only are their thoughts valued, they carry weight when it’s time to make high-level decisions. Plus, creating a culture that’s hostile to differing opinions will ultimately hurt a manager’s chances of success, says Silverman. When you always believe you’ve got the right answer, you won’t receive the information necessary to make fully informed decisions. As Iovine explains, “If your ego and your accomplishments stop you from listening, then they’ve taught you nothing.”