Monday, April 20, 2009

"The Guy Who Didn't Deserve His Own Show"

One of the side-effects of my constant travel schedule is arriving at hotels in new cities late at night or early in the morning, and being unable to sleep, too excited by either the harrowing travel or the events of the next day. I’ve learned to appreciate the ability of late-night TV to slow down my nerves and help me sleep. Late-night TV is mostly a wasteland of infomercials and B-movies, but one of the bright spots for me has been “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” on NBC. I’ve only caught a handful of the shows, but it can always be counted on for a laugh it seems. It was interesting to see recently that Conan has aired his final show, as he will be succeeding Jay Leno as “Tonight Show” host when Jay steps down later this year -- according to Conan, a dream of his come true.

Conan’s career path also contains many lessons for leaders, I believe. You see, when Conan was offered the role of host of “Late Night” in 1993 (after being encouraged to audition by the legendary producer of “Saturday Night Live” Lorne Michaels), he was following the very successful David Letterman, and Conan was a complete unknown. He had been a successful writer behind the scenes on “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live,” but he had no show-hosting experience. Many experts in the entertainment field were quite surprised and maybe even a bit offended that someone they did not know well had been chosen to host “Late Night.” In fact, NBC even acknowledged this perception in a radio ad which aired shortly before the show's debut that year that had O'Brien telling the story of someone who recognized him on the street and said, "Look, honey, there's the guy who doesn't deserve his own show!"

And his tenure was not without its bumps. For example, the first three years, NBC insisted on renewing the show only on a two-week basis at a time, as its survival was not guaranteed. Then Conan and his staff began hitting their stride. The shows became consistently funny, ratings improved, and the show developed a loyal following, especially among high-school and college-age kids. This provided some comedic fodder for O’Brien on his 10th Anniversary Special. Mr. T appeared on the special to give O'Brien a gold necklace with a giant "7" on it. When O'Brien tried to point out that he's actually been on the air for ten years, Mr. T responded, "I know that, fool...but you've only been funny for seven!"

What’s the lesson for leaders? Well, first of all, greatness in others is not always readily apparent. Sixteen years ago, no one was predicting that Conan would be such a successful host with such a legion of fans that he would actually be the next host of the “Tonight Show” after Jay Leno. His greatness was under the surface. He appeared to be an ordinary man, the “guy who doesn’t deserve his own show.” It took a visionary like Lorne Michaels to see the “ordinary greatness” in Conan.

Second, the lesson is that people need time. It might take a while to see ordinary greatness in others – don’t give up. You might have to keep an eye on things weekly like the NBC folks, but the results will be there.

So tonight, before you watch “Late Night” or go to bed early, be sure you have recognized greatness somewhere around you. Oh, and be sure to not just recognize it, but to tell someone you have. Here are some phrases to get you started:

I haven’t told you this in a while, but thank you for….
You might think that no one noticed when you…
Thank you for making my job easier when you…
Thank you for always taking such good care of our customers. I know they don’t always say thank you, so let me…

There is ordinary greatness everywhere you live. If it’s not apparent, you might have to be open to it and give it time. But the return on your investment will make it worth it, and you might find the next Conan!

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