“I’m Not a Businessman; I’m a Business, Man!”


Business leader Jay-Z continues his way from success to significance

When I finished reading Jay-Z’s recent book Decoded, one of the verses of Coolio’s classic “Gangsta’s Paradise” popped into my mind:

I am an educated fool with money on my mind.

Purposeful Leadership

This is exactly the self-image that Shawn Corey Carter aka Jay-Z creates in his new book. Yes, he proudly confirms that money is important to him, but he also uses his autobiographical notes and demonstration of aesthetic tastes to educate his readers about the true artistry of him and hip-hop culture as such.

Then, artistry does not only mean rhyming bars, but includes his particular way to lead with the end to earn money.

Jay-Z Signing "Decoded"The book was released with an extraordinary marketing campaign in November 2010 and has been discussed at length in all major national newspapers and magazines. I assume that due to the unique artistic composition of the book, little attention has been payed to the depiction of Jay-Z’s leadership model.

However, his understanding of running a business is everywhere in the book as it is ubiquitous in his rhymes. Even if you cannot connect to Jay-Z as a rapper, I would like to show you some of his cross-over ways to lead that may be beneficial for every other business leader.

Street Savvy Leadership

As everybody knows, Jay-Z did not study his strategies at a renowned business school, but learned them on the street, dealing with drugs.

1. Independence

The first prerequisite for a true leader and entrepreneur is the strive for independence. Putting it into his own words:

“One of the ways the streets kept ahold on me was that I lived the independence of that life…I didn’t want to give that up to become someone’s contracted employee.” (Jay-Z, Decoded, p246, hardcover edition).

The lessons from the streets made him aware of the dependencies the traditional record industry would confront him with, which led him to found his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, with his partners in 1994.

2. Discipline

Independence does not suffice to guarantee success unless it comes along with a good package of discipline including the ability to self-reflect.

Again, all his business experience relies on his former work as a hustler – a life experience he shares with many other rappers. According to him, hustling as a work process was able to compensate for the missed classes of a good business school and taught the lessons of street-smartness to organize, structure and manage diligently.

Like a good business student, he summarizes the foundation phase of his record label:

“Coming up with a business plan was the first thing the three of us did. We made short and long-term projections, we kept it realistic, but the key thing is that we wrote it down, which is as important as visualization in realizing success.” (p. 247)

These two basics of both leadership and management skills are very traditional and well-rooted in the classic American way of business life. Yet, Jay-Z presents two more ways in which he more clearly “crosses over” from a traditional notion of leadership to a more diverse understanding that has its roots in hip-hop culture itself, outside the “mainstream’s rules” (p. 82).

3. Competition

Traditional cooperations and leadership models often deal with competition in euphemistic terms, such as “strive for excellence” or “meritocracy”. Not hip-hop, which embraces open and naked competition. Battling is at the very origins of rap culture:

Hip-hop is a perfect mix between poetry and boxing. Of course, most artists are competitive, but hip-hop is the only art that I know that’s built on direct confrontation.” (p. 70)

Of course, open competition is healthy to bring out the best of you and opens up for collaboration at the same time. The whole book is a single proof that Jay-Z has also won through smart artistic collaborations.

At some points, I wish Jay-Z would have been more critical about this pattern, and not simply accept it as a “primal type of competition” (p. 71). In the past, the extreme competitiveness of rival rappers led to too many unruly fights that did not stop at battling over verses.

4. Caring for People

Lastly, Jay-Z portrays himself as somebody caring for the people he works with and the culture he is part of.

When he talks about his work he does so with a lot of kindness and a great sense of responsibility, doing the thing he loves. His language in these moments is far away from the emptiness of the average speak of many corporate managers.

His heart-beat is with his people and his poetry, no profanity needed.

It’s perhaps in these soft passages where a reader suspicious of Jay-Z as a leader may reverse his or her initial mindset that the book is sheer egotism.

Organic Chickens

All in all, Jay-Z portrays himself  in the grand tradition of an old-fashioned Horatio-Alger-story. He’s made it. He explains how. In times of an increasing gap between haves and have-nots in the U.S.  it seems legitimate to me to listen again to these kinds of stories – without parody and irony.

And the saga does not stop here: Jay-Z has just invested into an organic chicken wing restaurant in Brooklyn. Furthermore, it has just been released that Decoded has been nominated for the 42nd NAACP Image awards.

So how are you are looking at leadership through the eyes of a rapper? Do you engage with your teams with a spirit of independence, discipline, competition, and care? Are you taking the time to widen your thoughts, mind share, and practices to think  and act like Jay-Z? And where is your passion for success in your leadership journey? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Dr. Bärbel Bohr owns “Bärbel Bohr – Projekte mit System”
Lecture at HSR Hochschule für Technik / Rapperswil (Switzerland)
She inspires success in leaders & students on their communication & culture awareness

Email | Web |

Image Sources: killerhiphop.com, broadwayworld.com

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One response to ““I’m Not a Businessman; I’m a Business, Man!”

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