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Leadership listening lessons from a music producer

The deep listening music producer Rick Rubin does improves his artists, and it offers lessons for leaders seeking to boost team performance, writes John Baldoni.

4 min read



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By his own admission, he does not play an instrument well, run a mixing board expertly, or likely sing or dance. He spends part of his working day, flat on a couch in a recording studio control room, listening. He is Rick Rubin, one of the most successful record producers in the business. 

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His style is reminiscent of another successful individual — John D. Rockefeller, who like Rubin, was a perceptive listener. As Ron Chernow noted in Titan, his biography on the oil man, Rockefeller would often enter a room where his directors or senior executives were meeting and lie down on a couch. While he appeared to be sleeping, periodically Rockefeller would offer a comment here or there, proving that he was listening and able to give advice, too.

The art of listening

Consider Rubin, a metaphysical listener. As he told Anderson Cooper on CBS 60 Minutes, Rubin does not care what the audience thinks; he cares about what his artists create. Here Rubin is channeling another man from an earlier era, Henry Ford, who famously said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Rubin’s gift is listening and bringing out the best in the musicians he works with. His style, nurtured by his meditation practice, is not directive but reflective. Rubin responds to what he hears and makes suggestions. For example, one artist noted that he gave her a homework assignment to write an essay about her music. Rubin’s approach does not intimidate but enables the artist to see something in their work that needed to be more evident to them initially.

Leaders of high-performing teams can learn from Rubin’s technique. And here are some suggestions.

Listen deeply. Managers are deluged with information. It requires great concentration to tune out the extraneous to focus on the present. When individuals and teams struggle with choices, they need an outside perspective. Make them comfortable. Listen to them explain their ideas. Smile as they explain. Above all, be patient.

Reflect on what you have heard. Too often, executives tend to jump in and make suggestions. If time is short, and a decision needs to be made, sure. But how much better would it be to lay back and reflect? Ask further questions. Convene another meeting. Do not rush.

Suggest, but do not impose. Executives are hired to move projects along, and so their advice is to be expected. However, better to suggest than set. Let people build on what you say so they take ownership of it. Dwight Eisenhower used this technique as Supreme Commander in Europe and later as president. Suggest and let people build upon what you offer.

Rinse and repeat. Listen, reflect, suggest. Finally, integrate the process into your management style. It will be a way to bring out the best in others.

Discipline matters

Management, of course, is not art; it is the discipline of getting things done. And executives have every right to make changes, even if employees do not like them. However, the better choice is to enable others to see what you see so they can bring out the best in themselves. 

Doing so makes them true to themselves and in the process, successful contributors to the enterprise.


John Baldoni is a member of 100 coaches and leadership keynote presenter. He has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus, a list he has been on since 2007. He is also ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by John is the author of 15 books. His leadership resource website is 

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