You may have heard that Taylor Swift was out on tour this summer, you might even have been lucky enough to snag one of the tickets that resulted in estimated total ticket sales of $780m. If you missed the live shows, or if you want to relive them, you can join the folks rushing to theaters to experience Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. The movie has already grossed in excess of $200m globally in its first few weeks of screening.
So far from being a Cruel Summer for Swift, all of this has propelled her into her newest era, and Forbes have officially named Taylor a billionaire. Although Taylor is the 15th celebrity to have billionaire status conferred by this publication, she is the first to achieve the accolade solely based on her songs and performances. It is a remarkable achievement, not least because it’s taken Taylor less than two decades to summit a peak that few performers reach in their lifetimes. But Taylor Swift isn’t just an incredibly savvy entrepreneur, she consistently demonstrates sophisticated leadership qualities that can be applied in any workplace:
Generating Profits Through Principals
Robert D. Haas (affectionately known as Bob Haas), the Chairman Emeritus of Levi Strauss & Co, and descendant of Levi Strauss, first coined the term “profits through principles” in a piece for the Brookings Institution. Although the term was new then, the idea of “responsible commercial success” has been at the heart of the organization since his great-great granduncle’s time. During my five years as an executive at Levi’s, I was drafted in dozens of times to present at the new hire orientation meeting. The part of the script that always made me feel proud to work there was the section that detailed how, time and again, Levi’s had “stood on the right side of history” on social justice issues. It’s such a central tenet of the company’s 170 year history that Chip Bergh, CEO, recommitted to the stance when the company returned to public ownership.
Although Levi’s may have been amongst the first to employ social justice as a corporate strategy, winning market share by “doing the right thing” has become so prevalent that investors now have the option to consider ESG (environmental, social, governance) factors as part of their decision making process.
Taylor Stands By Her Principals
In the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, partly filmed during Swift’s 2018 Reputation tour, Taylor is contemplating taking a public stance on the ongoing political discourse, something that she had previously completely avoided. Taylor’s manager, Robert Allen, vehemently opposes taking a public position:
“Imagine if we came to you and said: hey we’ve got this idea that we could halve the number of people that come to your next tour”
Taylor’s response is unequivocal:
“I am saying right now, that this is something that I know is right, and you guys I need to be on the right side of history”
Swift was willing to do what she felt was the right thing, even if it resulted in lower future ticket sales. Ultimately Taylor was vindicated: taking a stance didn’t impact sales receipts at all, in fact Taylor Swift sold more tickets than anyone else in 2023.
The Power Of Reward And Recognition
Taylor made headlines this summer when she reportedly personally underwrote $55m in bonuses for her tour staff. Although individuals received up to $100,000, with many of her staff describing it as a “life changing” sum, it is Taylor’s approach that is noteworthy. Along with the checks, Scott Swift (Taylor’s father) handed out handwritten notes of appreciation from Taylor herself.
The behavioral science behind employee recognition is clear. According to Gallup:
“Workplace recognition motivates, provides a sense of accomplishment and makes employees feel valued for the work they do. Recognition also sends a message to other employees about what success looks like”
In addition to being a global superstar, Taylor Swift is the de facto CEO of her organization. Taking the time to personally write to each of her 500 employees shows an appreciation of higher-level motivational thinking:
“Employees need to know that they are more than just a number. They need to know that someone is concerned about them as people first and as employees second”
It may seem to be a small gesture, but a handwritten note is a sophisticated leadership tool, as W.C.H. Prentice notes in the Harvard Business Review:
“Effective leaders take a personal interest in the long-term development of their employees, and they use tact and other social skills to encourage employees to achieve their best”
Replicating Taylor’s commercial success may be beyond the reach of most, but her leadership approach can work in any role, in any industry. Swift clearly communicates her values, so her staff can align around the mission, and pursues a profits through principals philosophy. Combining reward with recognition improves employee engagement and enhances motivation, even in the high-pressure environment of a multi-city arena tour.
Wherever you sit in the organization, if Taylor can find time time to write 500 thank you notes, you can too.