August 15, 2020 / VOLUME NO. 118
Loyalty and Legacy

Clive Davis spent the first few years of his career at New York law firms. 

It wasn’t long, however, before a former colleague recruited him to join the legal department at Columbia Records, then a CBS subsidiary, in 1960. He was promptly promoted to general counsel.

Davis didn’t listen to music growing up. And he doesn’t play an instrument. But within a few years, he was heading the record label.

“I knew nothing about music,” he said in an interview for “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” a 2017 documentary. “But I did seize that opportunity.”

He convinced CBS that rock and roll was more than a passing fad. After being fired by CBS in 1973 — amid payola accusations that he contests to this day — he founded Arista Records, which eventually became home for artists like Whitney Houston, who he discovered as a teenager.

At 82, he still serves as chief creative officer at Sony Music Entertainment.

So, why has Davis been so successful?

Davis is known as the “man with the golden ears.” He can’t play music, but his track record for recognizing and fostering creative talent is unparalleled.

He’s also good at cultivating connections.

In 2000, Davis was pushed out as head of Arista Records. Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), which owned Arista at the time, said he was too old.

Artists, colleagues and competitors were shocked.

“Taking Clive out of Arista is like taking Manhattan out of New York,” singer-songwriter Carly Simon said at the time.

BMG realized its error and brought Davis back to form a new label, J Records. 

All 18 of Arista’s senior executives chose to follow him there.

“That was one of the most emotionally gratifying and meaningful situations that ever happened in my career,” Davis said.

Leadership isn’t a popularity contest.

Yet, building a culture that fosters a high level of loyalty, like Davis did, forms the foundation of an enviable legacy.

Emily McCormick, vice president of research at Bank Director
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