Leadership Lessons from 18 Years as a DJ


Leadership lessons come from all walks of life. Too often, people compartmentalize the business and personal worlds and believe what is learned in one sphere cannot be applied to another. Yet, of all of the different ways to learn, this type of learning, known as transfer learning, is clearly the best. Transfer learning builds on insights gained in one field and applies it to another, skipping the slog of building knowledge on a bare-bones framework. When compared to traditional, independent learning, transfer learning allows for the same insights with far fewer inputs.

traditional machine learning and transfer learning flow chart
Courtesy: Fred Cazza

In the last eighteen years, I had a slew of transfer learning opportunities via djing hundreds of events. I have played classic hip-hop, 1940’s Big Band, dubstep, and boatloads of house music. I played in the dodgiest nightclubs and the most ornate churches. Here’s what those experiences taught me about the art of business.

Leadership Lesson #1: Be patient and let the flow develop.

Great DJs understanding timing. Take a mediocre DJ and a great DJ and give each two tracks. The mediocre DJ will cut over too early, jarring the crowd, or too late, sucking the energy from the room. The great DJ will blend the track seamlessly, cutting over at absolutely the right time, injecting the crowd with new energy.

Good leadership is predicated on timing. An incentive becomes a disincentive if delivered too slowly. Reacting to an employee’s complaint too quickly before fully understanding the problem can be seen by peers as reactionary and may only create additional problems.

DJs call this “sitting in the mix”. Sit in the mix until the appropriate time to make a change. Allow for some discomfort and don’t be afraid to tell your team “things might not get better for a while.” But when that change is made, be decisive, clear, and ensure maximum value is delivered to the organization.

Leadership Lesson #2: Everyone has a place.

There’s a saying in the DJ community, “Every track has its place.” There’s a time for Beck, a time for George Jones, and even a time for the Macarena. Any washed out amateur can throw down the latest top 40 tracks for some rowdy teenagers. But piece in “Ironic” as the last song for a wedding reception, incite a near-riot, and you have reached a new feel for exactly where tracks belong.

Every person has their place and it is your obligation as a leader to help that person understand their place. Maybe that is inside the organization or outside. The classic organization structure emphasized heavy resource accumulation and the subsequent building of walls to keep those resources inside. Adopt this principle and you will soon realize that the internet has leveled those boundaries. Your obligation to all your employees and even coworkers is to empower them to find their place. A place where they fit and can deliver the right energy at the right time.

Leadership Lesson #3: Own the mike, but hold it loosely.

Have you ever been at an event where the DJ badgered people incessantly? “Where my party people at? Yo yo yo!” And maybe a loud eight-bit horn? Terrible. Having the mike is a responsibility and using it to goad people to provide what you want is an affront to the profession (and common decency). Early in my DJing career, I struggled with the mike. A simple line such as “The buffet is now open, please serve yourself” was oddly daunting. It was more comfortable to let my mixing doing the talking, but in doing so I abandoned the responsibility that the mike brings.

DJ Khaled meme saying I don't always DJ but when i do I yell and ruin the song

Wielding that mike in an organization is a mandatory element of every leadership role. If you are a technical person, it might be voicing concerns about the technology stack. If you are on the commercial side, maybe the marketing strategy needs some work. But wield that authority judiciously. Whining to enact change is no less boorish than being that dreaded “party people” DJ.

Leadership Lesson #4: Read and react to the situation.

In my first few years of djing, I would arrive with a set playlist of how to rock the party. I would visualize how the crowd would react to these carefully selected and incredibly dope tracks. I soon realized that what was engineered in the studio never translates as one hopes to the dance floor. As time went on, the tactic of loosely batching tracks together and reacting to the audience proved much better.

I believed a lot of things about my career that never materialized. I was going to be CEO here, a professional engineer there, a long-tenured VP there. It is human nature to seek the next step, bundle aspirations, and forecast a linear career journey.

What is behind the curtain?

What’s behind the curtain is not for us to know now, only to experience in due time. Instead of carrying expectations of a future career path, bundle talents loosely together and be ready to answer the call no matter what tomorrow brings.

Leadership Lesson #5: Play for your client.

The drunk uncle at the wedding who needs to hear “Roxanne” RIGHT NOW is not the client. The client is the couple who hired you, the promoter who put you on the bill, or the charity‘s president for which you are raising money. One of the first things I did when meeting with an engaged couple is to expound upon that point. “I’m here to help you build the vision of the night and I will use my expertise to give you some guidance along the way.”

In business, sometimes you might get asked to do things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. “If I was in charge, I would do things differently.” Yes, you probably would and maybe things would be better. But there’s a very high chance they would be worse. So play for your manager, but never shortchange yourself and your valuable perspective on how to make things better.

Leadership Lesson #6: Go all in.

Eighteen years ago as the proverbial broke college student I faced a difficult decision. “Did I really want to buy turntables? What if I don’t use them?” Buying those top of the line turntables was a trigger that forced me to learn. Forcing myself into action led to many great parties and memories, my first profitable business, and meeting my wife.

In today’s fast-paced world of business, hanging out in a “safe space” and taking half measures may feel like the best possible decision. “What if I fail? How will this affect my resume? If I have other, public interests outside of work, what will my workplace think?” Here’s the truth: nobody cares about how you spend your free time. And if you are working for a company that prohibits you from having outside interests, you are working for the wrong company.

So buy that expensive camera, launch that drop-shipping business, become that jujutsu instructor. There’s no telling what you may learn and how much greater of an engineer you will become.