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Daniel Ek

Spotify's founder says he's an introvert, but you don’t need to be a superhero to be an effective leader

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that leaders, particularly CEOs, need to be extraordinary people. We have images of victorious leaders mounting the barricades to encourage their followers to rise up and follow them. We have hundreds of leadership books focused on how to be a great visionary and storyteller, all round inspiring person. But we don’t all have that personality, or need it.

That’s the view of Daniel Ek, the quiet Swede who created the world’s largest music streaming platform, Spotify.

Ek’s initial business was launched in his bedroom, as a 13 year old, making websites for local businesses. He initially charged $100, but soon realised he could charge 50 times as much. He recruited school friends to help, paying them in video games, and took over the computer lab of his Sundbyberg high school. By the time he turned 18, he was earning $50,000 a month with a team of 25 students.

Whilst studying engineering in Stockholm he moved on to work with various technology companies, Tradera which was sold to eBay, Stardoll fashion and gaming platform. He soon dropped out and started a new business, Advertigo, an online advertising business, which he sold when he was 23, making him wealthy enough not to need a job.

Instead he indulged his passion in music, and founded Spotify in 2006, initially inspired by the illegal and now defunct peer-to-peer music services Napster and Kazaa.  He says he “realised that you can never legislate away from piracy. Laws can definitely help, but it doesn’t take away the problem. The only way to solve the problem was to create a service that was better than piracy and at the same time compensates the music industry – that gave us Spotify”. Two years later, the company launched its legal music streaming service, initially as a peer-to-peer distribution model, and then as a subscription service. It has received over $2.5 billion in funding and has over 200 million users.

In 2017 Billboard named Ek as the most powerful person in the music industry.

Ek describes himself as an introvert, struggling to manage his emotions. He says he had zero charisma when he became Spotify’s CEO, but was quick to recognise how significant his moods and behaviours could affect colleagues who looked up to him, and had perhaps never met him before. He recognised that he needed to be himself, to make the most of the qualities that define who he uniquely is, and the capabilities which he has, but also needed to change some of his other attributes.

He believes that leadership skills are learned, that true leaders are not born but made. That doesn’t mean that they should conform to some stereotype or norm, but they should be conscious of their leadership role, at whatever level they are, and their impact on others.

In a rare interview (he prefers not to be the spokesperson of the organisation, recognising that Spotify is about so much more than him) he talked to Fast Company about his personal leadership journey.

With typical Swedish understatement Ek, having created a company worth more than $25 billion, describes himself as “relatively decent at most things, like a jack of all trades, but not really great at anything.”

He goes on “I’m still not a very good presenter. A lot of business leaders are way more charismatic than I am. I’m an introvert.” He describes a “battle with himself” as he forced himself to learn to be a better leader.

“If I’m having a sh***y day, there may be someone who’s worked in this company for three years and this is the only time they get to spend an hour or even 15 minutes with me. What impression do I leave? For someone who’s not a natural leader, that’s super tough. But that’s what I’m working on, mental things, listening to Headspace, getting in the right mood. I had to change things about myself that I wasn’t really comfortable changing. I did a lot of soul searching. I got a lot of feedback on what I wasn’t good enough at.”

As a private person, he particularly struggles to share his more vulnerable side. “I realised that I didn’t have to change who I was in order to do well. But I needed to more clearly and succinctly explain myself,” he says. “I tell people when I’m uncertain about something or where I think I screwed up. Those are things that the old me wouldn’t have done.”

© Peter Fisk 2021.

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