Spotify founder and CEO discusses creativity, learning and leadership

With a 320 million user base, including 144 million subscribers across 92 markets (1), Spotify is many a music lover’s primary source for beats and inspiration both at home and on the go. It’s also a great place for podcast creators to send their words of insight and wisdom out into the world and for podcast listeners everywhere to come across them.

It seemed fitting, therefore, to open the app on my phone one day and find Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of Spotify, being interviewed on the podcast The Tim Ferriss Show (2).

The interview covered a lot of ground, from Daniel’s background growing up in Sweden to his current investment in European tech entrepreneurship through the Brilliant Minds Foundation (3). What I’d like to distil here, though, for the value they might hold as food for thought, are the key ideas he shared regarding the company culture at Spotify, his views on the role of leaders and some of the aspects he deems instrumental in fostering creativity, learning and growth.

The topics I'll focus on here are:

  • The balance between the collective and the individual
  • Safety and structure as core components of creativity

  • The need for changing missions in changing companies

  • Understanding the various roles of a leader

  • Valuing agility and learning over being great at one task

Read on to find out more!

The balance between the collective and the individual

According to Ek, the Swedish word lagom describes something that is “just about right”, neither too much nor too little. In essence, something or someone that doesn’t stand out from the collective they are part of. He goes on to state that being lagom is a goal to aspire to in Swedish culture, which is in opposition to the American aspiration of self-expression and not being afraid to take up space. Spotify, he says, is a kind of hybrid between these two subcultures that coexist within it. It’s definitely about teamwork and everyone having a voice, but it’s also about trying to change society.

Safety and structure as core components of creativity

Drawing from his own experience of being brought up by parents who gave him the psychological safety to explore, be curious and seek out answers to his questions, Ek noted how a basic sense of security allows for tinkering and experimentation without fear of failure, which in turn leads to greater levels of creativity.

He also pointed out what he sees as a misconception concerning creativity, which is to equate it solely with freedom. In his view, creativity thrives in the polarity between structured and unstructured living. From his own observation of highly creative individuals, he has noticed that many of them lead very structured, almost scripted daily lives.

The need for changing missions in changing companies

As companies change considerably when cycling through the different stages of their existence, from start-up to scale-up to mature, so must people’s roles change with them, Ek thinks. This is true for employees as well as for company leaders, whose role might be altered drastically from the start-up phase to the mature phase. The change he speaks of is not necessarily one of title, but definitely one of substance.

Within Spotify, Ek says, when they were a 1000-person company they started looking at what would change when they grew to 5000 people and more. They also prefer the idea of giving people two-year missions – often based on an aspirational feeling rather than on more objective goals – and review those missions as time goes by.

Understanding the various roles of a leader

For Ek, being the CEO of a company doesn’t mean that your role in meetings is always that of the approver or decider. Sometimes you only need to be consulted or serve as a sounding board for people’s ideas. He stressed that the roles of a CEO in meetings are highly contextual and dependent on a lot of variables, and for good results they should be defined upfront.

Explaining what his leadership style looks like and what types of roles he plays at Spotify, he mentioned three:

  • The editor, who always brings the company back to purpose and asks how a new idea might feed into that purpose
  • The person who sets the bar for the organization, leading by example, since you must manage yourself well before you manage others

  • The personal coach, who helps people figure out how to be at their best and prioritize their time.

Valuing agility and learning over being great at one task

Ek believes most people – himself included – are not visionaries with all the answers about what the future will bring and how to meet its challenges. In fact, most people learn as they go, which means it is important to create an environment where failure is acceptable and people can be transparent about it. That is why he values agility and learning over someone being really good at one specific task or another. As a culture, he says, it feels a lot more resilient than a model based on a godlike ability to the see the future before anyone else.

He also goes into more detail about the process he uses for learning and first approaching problems, calling it the city mental model. When arriving in a city by plane, you have different perspectives at different altitudes. Initially you only see a blob, then you start to make out the contours of buildings, then you get down to street level and can see a lot more detail. Keeping this in mind, Ek always tackles a new issue by allocating enough time to understand what it is about, and then he divides it into individual blocks, which he can move through with more or less detail depending on what feels necessary.


These were my takeaways from Daniel Ek’s interview. Did you find them useful? I do encourage you to listen to the whole interview on your podcast platform of choice (links on Tim Ferriss' blog) or on Tim Ferriss' YouTube channel and see if you agree or disagree with my summary (everything is subjective, after all). Let me know in the comments what your own take on it was, as well as any other points you might add to the list.

Unless indicated otherwise, all the content posted here was created by me. If you're interested in using it, please get in touch via the comments. Credits for the photo of Daniel Ek used in the header: Magnus Höij, CC BY 2.0 < >, via Wikimedia Commons.