It’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count: when you think about your career, who inspires you?
As a technology leader, I know the right answers to the question: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Annie Easley, Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, and Katherine Johnson are good ones, for example, geniuses whose vision, drive, passion, and focus changed – and continue to change – the world forever. But I spent my teenage years dreaming of being a rock star, not a technologist, so while I’m blown away by Elon Musk’s work, I’m also convinced that the world would be a terribly boring (and potentially scary) place if we all had posters of him on our walls.
When I think about the people who inspire me, and who continue to push me in creative, visionary, exciting ways, I still think about the people I looked up to (sometimes literally, on my bedroom walls) as a teenager – artists like David Bowie, The Beatles, and even Lenny Kravitz. These artists challenged our perceptions of art, music, sexuality, and race. They broke boundaries while producing incredible art. And they made us dance while they did it.
Which brings me to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Even as a teenager in the late-1990s group Destiny’s Child, her talent, drive, and star quality set her apart from her peers. When she released her first solo album in 2003, it was clear that Beyoncé was just getting started.
As a musician, Beyoncé has sold nearly 180 million albums worldwide (including 60 million with Destiny’s Child), making her one of the most successful recording artists of all time. She has had 22 Number One hits on the U.S. Dance Club Chart, and has never had a studio album that didn’t go platinum at least one time. She’s won all of the most important awards in her field, including those from MTV, BET, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Billboard, Kids’ Choice, Teens Choice, and the NAACP. She’s been nominated for 79 Grammy Awards and has won 24 times.
As impressive as this is, it only tells part of the story, because Beyoncé is much more than a recording artist with great dance moves. In 2007, she formed the company Parkwood Entertainment, which not only oversees her tours, videos, and recordings, but also acts as a management company for other artists, a record label, a film production company, and the owner of an athletic apparel brand called Ivy Park. As a self-made, high-integrity entrepreneur and business person, Beyoncé famously demands creative control over her projects, and the results speak for themselves. Her net worth is estimated at more than $500 million. It’s not Gates/Musk/Buffet money, but I bet her parties are a lot more fun than theirs are.
Before. I go on, I need to confess: I’m not the world’s biggest Beyoncé fan. I haven’t seen all of her specials, bought all of her albums, or watched all of her videos looking for clues about her life. I didn’t have her poster up on my wall as a kid. Still, here are a few things about leadership I’ve learned from Queen Bey:
Without diversity, we all lose
If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose. The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.Beyoncé in Vogue Magazine
Even when she’s working with her husband Jay-Z, who operates within the bravado-filled world of rap, Beyoncé and her music are always, always inclusive. She is a fierce LGBTQ ally and is outspoken on issues related to Black people and culture, using her position of power to educate her fans (and some who are not) in ways that are respectful, confrontational, and challenging. She doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, regardless of the stage she’s on. Her lyrics tell the same story:
My music doesn’t discriminate against anyoneTranslated from “Mi Gente,” by Beyoncé
So we’re gonna tear it up
Everyone moves to my stuff
Beyoncé reminds us that without diversity of experience and thought, “we will all lose.”
Find your strength and stand up for yourself
Beyoncé is one of the most empowered and empowering performers alive. From “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” which tells a former lover “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it,” to “Bow Down/I Been On,” which boldly claims “I’m bigger than life, my name in the lights/I’m the number one chick, ain’t need no hype,” Beyoncé celebrates the power that comes with being a successful woman and a leader.
Queen Bey also knows that you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. In the past decade, she has famously took on Target and Amazon in 2013 for refusing to stock her Beyoncé album, wore a Black Panther uniform in the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, and created a birth announcement for her twins in 2017 intended to show that “she is mother and saint and goddess of beauty and sex, all at once, and she’s doing it as a woman of color, too.” (Vox) Beyoncé does things her own way.
Be fierce, and also compassionate
One of the things I really appreciate about Beyoncé is that even when she’s fierce, she’s not afraid to show her more sensitive side. Her confidence is not the overblown trash-talking that shows up so often in music and politics – it’s a much more nuanced thing, tempered with humility and humanity. The Lemonade album provides a masterful example of this. Throughout the album’s 12 songs, the narrator struggles to make sense of what led her spouse to be unfaithful, alternately feeling rage, loss, depression, and love. The rage part is clear and convincing. The narrator of the story has been wronged, and she, a powerful leader with truth on her side, does not mince words:
Who the f— do you think you is?
You ain’t married to no average b—-
Keep your money, I got my own
Keep a bigger smile on my face, being alone
I am the dragon breathing fire“Don’t Hurt Yourself,” by Beyoncé
Beautiful mane I’m the lion
Beautiful man I know you’re lying
I am not broke and I’m not crying
But equally compelling, and at least as honest, is the narrator in the song “Hold Up,” who can’t help questioning her own worth, even as she knows she’s in the right:
I’m not too perfect
To ever feel this worthless
How did it come to this
Scrolling through your call list
Is there something that I’m missing? Maybe my head for one“Hold Up,” by Beyoncé
What’s worse looking jealous and crazy, jealous and crazy
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
Each of us – leaders, employees, parents, friends, lovers – experience times of fragility, times that balance our moments of absolute clarity with doubt or ambivalence. Beyoncé does a masterful job of helping us understand that this is a normal part of what it means to be human. Leaders who can find this balance are on a path to greatness.
Balance process and structure with creativity
I don’t like too much structure. I like to be free. I’m not alive unless I am creating something. I’m not happy if I’m not creating, if I’m not dreaming, if I’m not creating a dream and making it into something real. I’m not happy if I’m not improving, evolving, moving forward, inspiring, teaching, and learning.Beyoncé in Vogue Magazine
Some amount of structure is critical to our success – leaders need consistent, well-articulated processes in order to scale teams and solutions. But too much structure can get in the way of our ability to be creative, and it’s by balancing process and creativity that we unlock incredible opportunities. Apple is great at producing iPhones, but they had to invent them first. The same goes for Tesla and the Model S.
Queen Bey, like other recording artists, has a “normal” process too. Albums come out every two years or so, with Rolling Stone articles written in advance to generate hype, and a single or two dropped within weeks of the full album release. After an album is released, there are interviews, videos, and world tours. This tried and true, predictable process has served the recording industry well for many years.
But when the album Beyoncé was released on a random Thursday night in 2013, Beyoncé showed that, by leveraging the power of social media and digital music platforms, she could open up new ways of thinking for the music industry, generate enormous buzz, and – importantly – continue to sell millions of albums. Beyoncé wasn’t the first to do this, but she was the most successful, and the reverberations of her 2013 album launch are still being felt by the industry. Creativity FTW.
Be true to yourself
As the mother of two girls, it’s important to me that they see themselves too—in books, films, and on runways. It’s important to me that they see themselves as CEOs, as bosses, and that they know they can write the script for their own lives—that they can speak their minds and they have no ceiling. They don’t have to be a certain type or fit into a specific category. They don’t have to be politically correct, as long as they’re authentic, respectful, compassionate, and empathetic.Beyoncé in Vogue Magazine
Unlike most of us, Queen Bey’s celebrity means that everything she does is viewed under a microscope – not her songs, performances, and business deals, but also her pregnancies, political views, and vacations. And while Beyoncé experiences this reality in a completely different way than most of us, the core concept – that work and life are not “balanced” but are one and the same – holds true for most of us (my friends Marc Kermisch and Nancy Lyons have written and spoken eloquently on the subject). From Forbes Magazine:
Today the boundaries between one’s professional and personal life are constantly blurring. It is impractical to think of work-life balance as a complete separation between worlds. David Solomon, the global co-head of Goldman Sachs said, “today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.” Ron Ashkenas, a consultant and author, shares his experience with a conference call while on vacation, where each member of the call was on vacation as well, but no one thought to suggest rescheduling. The idea that a person’s work life and personal life will not intermingle is unrealistic today. Jim Bird of WorkLifeBalance.com writes, “work-life balance does not mean an equal balance.” In fact, he notes that few people have found a single definition for the concept of work-life balance.Forbes Magazine
But Beyoncé does much more than implicitly acknowledgment that work and life are completely intertwined. Her message is one of empowerment for all girls:
We’re smart enough to make these millions
Strong enough to bear the children
Then get back to business
Who run the world? Girls! Girls!“Run the World (Girls),” by Beyoncé
Who run the world? Girls!
For Beyoncé, every interaction, every piece of art and work, is an opportunity to express her truth and her values. If she wants her girls to grow up feeling that they can accomplish anything, she needs to believe it, say it, and show it.
Let that be a lesson for us all.