Leadership Lessons From Pharrell At ComplexCon

We live in a self-help society. One where there is always a new best seller on how to be a better leader. Just walk into any airport bookstore, and you’ll see a few propped up on the front table, acting as cat nip for all the executive platinum ladder climbers en route to key meetings and conferences.

But how often do you personally get to witness revolutionary leadership in the flesh? Not just talking, but doing?

Recently, I got to work my first major event as a member of Pharrell’s “i am OTHER” team at ComplexCon — the convention mecca for street fashion and culture where Pharrell is the Cultural Director/Executive Chair. With that title comes a lot of influence on the direction of the event, and a lot of work for everyone on his team. The kind of work that is closer to typical consumer marketing project work than someone from the outside would think.

With any large project, there needs to be leadership to drive the shared goals of all those involved. And transcendent leadership can lead to outcomes others can only dream about. Here are four lessons I learned from watching Pharrell from just inside the curtain this weekend.

Pharrell performing with N.E.R.D at ComplexCon. Photo by Marty Olivo.

Extend A Hand To Others

On Sunday, i am OTHER hosted the #begreat party showcasing a range of hip-hop up-and-comers and current mega stars. Pharrell was the maestro, playing hype man for all the acts. One of the artists on the come up featured was RexxLifeRaj. After his energetic set, he smartly wanted to remind the crowd who he was and when his new music is coming out. But his nervousness to be on such a large stage hit him and it came out like:


There’s no way you could understand what he said. And Pharrell immediately saw it. So as Rexx was running off stage, Pharrell grabbed his mic and said to him — and the crowd:

“HOLD UP! HOLD UP! You’re nice…But they didn’t hear you. Go back and tell them — slowly — who you are. They need to know.”

With that, Rexx turned back to the crowd and let us all know:

“I’m RexxLifeRaj — I come from Berkeley, California — and my album Father Figure 2: Flourish is out November Seventeenth.”

Pharrell gave a gift to that kid. First, he gave him approval. He told that whole crowd he was impressed by him. Second, he gave him a lesson. He let him know to not sell himself short again as he continues to rise. I guarantee Rexx will NEVER rush through his intro again.

Pharrell meets his fans at the i am OTHER booth. Photo by Marty Olivo.

Articulate The Power Of Your People

The apex of the weekend was the return of Pharrell’s band N.E.R.D. who debuted their entire new album to thousands of fans with an elaborate show featuring 85 dancers bringing all the new tracks to life. The show was a risk since only one song has been released. Would people understand the unorthodox unveiling?

The answer was a resounding yes. And Pharrell wasn’t shy about why it went over so well. It was all about the team he empowered to make the show’s vision a reality.

The next day in a live taping of OTHERtone for Apple’s Beats 1 Radio, when asked about the show the night before, he immediately asked the audience to give it up for the dancers. He later made sure to call out choreographer Jaquel Knight for his stewardship of the show’s vision. He also took the time to tell everyone in attendance how dancer Mette Towley rose to the occasion to bring Phi Hollinger and Todd Tourso’s vision for lead single Lemon to life.

See the pattern?

At every turn he passed credit on to the members of the extended i am OTHER family. Even though the man is one of the most recognizable people in the world, he knows his fate is in the hands of those he empowers. And he immediately shares success with them. Not just thanking them, but recognizing their effort. There is no ambiguity surrounding the hard work it takes to be successful. Pharrell’s openness about his team and their collective efforts provides a model for anyone looking to learn about leadership.

Pharrell at the i am OTHER booth. Photo by Marty Olivo.

Elevate Your Company’s Vision

One of the highlights of the N.E.R.D. show was the band and dancers performing “Lemon” three straight times to end the show. But since Rihanna wasn’t there, they performed this N.E.R.D.-only version. One new line caught my ear immediately:

“i am OTHER — We got an office in space.”

This was the first time I had heard this line. And the moment it hit my ears I started to tear up. In nine words, Pharrell articulated exactly why I feel so blessed to be part of i am OTHER. It shows our goals aren’t just to make cool content and a quick buck.

It’s to challenge ourselves to dream the biggest dreams, to make the most amazing ideas come to life. Everything is possible. Because we have the team to make it happen. We have the astronauts and the engineers.

It also sets the level of effort expectations for us all. Sending a person to space isn’t easy. Having an office there — even metaphorically — is it’s own challenge. We’re expected to solve problems no one has encountered before because we’re doing the things no one has done before. He attracts people who thrive in these conditions and then pushes us to go even further.

Pharrell shows his gratefulness to the i am OTHER #BeGreat party audience. Photo by Marty Olivo.

Be Grateful

Throughout the weekend, around every corner, there was an audience for Pharrell. There are the big ones where he was on stage. But there were many not-so-obvious ones when he visited booths on the convention floor, or said hi to well-wishers after the show. In all of these situations, he always made it clear how grateful he was to the people surrounding him.

First, he let the crowd know the reason they chose to play the entire new N.E.R.D. album was to give a gift to the real fans. The ones in that massive space that came from all around the world. He let them know this show was for them. A chance to have the album before anyone else. Then, as the show ended, he bowed to the crowd — hands over his head — and held the pose of love and respect for an extended moment to let everyone know just how grateful he was.

Now that I’ve been inside the curtain this year to see the man’s schedule and see the creative work, the countless business meetings, the cross-continental flights — I know that his life is beyond hectic. But he clearly lives by the same advice he gave the audience at the OTHERtone taping.

“Find the thing in life you would do for free if only your basic necessities were paid for and you will never work a day in your life.”

He follows this advice in spades and is grateful for where it has taken him. Actively celebrating this at all times attracts OTHERS that are grateful. And a grateful team is a powerful team.

Thanks To Marty Olivo for the amazing pics and Madelyn McZeal for editing the post. I am gratful for you sharing your talents with me.