Career

Copy the Leader: Jon Sabillón
Jon Sabillón, c’11, is an international DJ, entrepreneur, and music futurist. We sat down with Jon to learn what leadership means to him.

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Jayhawks in leadership positions are everywhere you look, including through the Jayhawk Career Network. KU Alumni, in partnership with SumnerOne, is highlighting Jayhawk leaders who are models for others in their industries with our “Copy the Leader” program.

What do you do in your work?

I’m an international DJ, entrepreneur, and music futurist.

 

I started DJing at KJHK at KU as an undergrad. Since then, I have played 1,000+ shows in dozens of cities across America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. I’m the only DJ in the world to receive an Ambassadorship from the United Nations specifically for my DJ work. Now, I run a DJ lifestyle company that has been recognized for helping reform DJ culture to be healthier, less stagnant, and more inclusive, as well as for designing my own controllers and inventive methods for DJing.

 

While getting my master’s degree at Berklee College of Music, I founded the world’s first record label for robots and developed novel ways to compose music using quantum computers, repressed memories, and the night sky. The record label has since evolved into a non-profit foundation centered on discovering new frontiers in music, including using music to communicate with animals, investigate non-human cultures, and to experience non-temporality.

What are the qualities of a good leader?

When I think of the ideal leader, what comes to mind are various characters from fiction; because they are fantasy they exemplify obvious and exaggerated qualities that are easier to identify and then aspire to. Characters like Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek), Aragorn (Lord of the Rings), Captain America (Marvel), and Moana (Disney) offer fantastic models for leadership. These characters share strong values, adaptability, empathy, integrity, and resilience. They trust and empower their team members and are able to keep their egos in place. They also have a clear and vivid vision of a collective future, even while the path there is almost always unknown and perilous. While their external adventures are what they are famous for, it is really their rich inner lives and journeys that are what makes them effective leaders, and without tending to their gardens of the heart and soul, they likely wouldn’t be as compelling or inspirational.

How do you practice leadership at your job?

The most important thing for me is being comfortable with ambiguity. I am perpetually in uncharted waters (sometimes literally) and as such it is essential for me to maintain a strong vision of what I’m trying to accomplish and the reasons why. Many of the things I’ve worked on and continue to pursue have never been done before. So, there is a fair amount of skepticism, confusion, or incredulity whenever I’m communicating my projects and objectives. People have very strong opinions and reactions around concepts of creativity, artificial intelligence, the business of music, consciousness (especially regarding machines), and so forth, and there is also an understandable layer of fear with these topics. While I always welcome differing views and perspectives, sometimes people will oppose my ideas and efforts no matter what. It is in these moments where it’s important to not take anything personally and as much as possible to cut through the delusions and outcries of the ego. There is a Buddhist axiom that says, “Whatever you do is evil to someone,” and so my finite bandwidth is better spent on identifying curious individuals and organizations that are similarly energized and excited by the possibilities of the “weird” in the Shakespearean sense. As the Sufi poet Rumi says, “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”

What makes a team or group successful?

A group’s success will vary depending on its composition, goals, and circumstances, which are sometimes outside their control. Generally speaking, the most important factor is sharing a clear vision. Even if internal conflict or difficulties arise, which they always will, a compelling vision and raison d’être will allow the team to overcome these obstacles. It’s helpful to recognize that everyone on a team has a purpose and to also respect and be open to a diversity of viewpoints and skills . A supportive environment where you can take risks and ask questions without fear will benefit everyone.

 

It’s also a good idea to have a definition of success that everyone can be on board with, both as individuals and as a group. External outcomes are important but so are intentions, as well as our emotional, mental, and spiritual development. Life is not a dress rehearsal; this is the show, and one’s time together with a group and team is often more valuable than whatever specific goal you set out to accomplish.

 

Strong, compassionate, and rational leadership brings it all together to ensure that everyone can navigate challenges and be empowered to succeed individually and collectively.

How can leaders in your industry help their organizations adapt to change?

Slow down! Everything is changing so fast, especially with creative AI, that it feels like everyone is getting the opposite message. I’ve noticed that peer businesses/organizations that were founded around the same time as mine have mostly all fizzled out. In almost every case, the leadership forgot their mission and began to chase vanity outcomes, compete in arenas that they didn’t belong in, or prioritize short-term profit. Strong core values are your anchors in shifting seas, in this stillness that’s both centered and open where longevity and sensible adaptability lie. It’s tough out here, and capitalism is so brutal and all-consuming that it’s often difficult to imagine a pace that allows you to pause and actually experience life instead of letting it pass you by. But change is an immutable part of the universe; it will happen whether you want it to or not, and if you’re not mindful of it, you will be swept away.

 

I’m reminded of KU’s university seal, which features Moses in front of the burning bush. Irish poet David Whyte wrote about this biblical moment and said,

 

“Every step he took

 

from there was carefully placed.

 

Everything he said mattered as if he knew

 

the constant witness of the ground

 

and remembered his own face in the dust

 

the moment before revelation.”

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