Four Leadership Lessons From Leno Blunder

The Jay Leno experiment didn’t last long. While NBC executives tried to fill a prime time hour with Jay Leno instead of more expensive programming, local affiliates couldn’t deal with the ratings decline and the resulting loss in viewers for their lucrative late night news shows.

Many of the reports are calling this a blunder by NBC, but Mark Cuban has an interesting alternative viewpoint:

What Zucker and NBC did was the EXACT RIGHT MOVE… In today’s corporate world, if you don’t take the risks, you don’t get skewered on blogs, on cable news, in the newspaper. Public condemnation appears to be a far worse consequence than financial success is a reward. Thats a huge problem for our country. 

My take: I’m not a TV programming expert by any means, but there are some interesting lessons in leadership that we can learn from this situation:

  • Innovation requires embracing failure. I agree with the general direction of Cuban’s comments; if you want to have innovation, then you need to deal with some failures. If you react too harshly when people fail, then they will be much less likely to take any risks in the future. With all of the change in technology, the TV industry certainly needs some more innovation. 
  • Don’t expect to get it right the first time. The Leno show was setup as if it was going to be perfect from the outset. Why else would you take over 5 nights of programming all at once?!? With that type of schedule, there was no time for the production staff to learn what worked and didn’t work and make mid-course corrections. If the network had factored learning and improving into the equation, they may have started with Leno on a 2-night schedule.
  • For every action, there’s a reaction. When we remodeled our house a few years ago, we wanted to move a window. Our contractor, who always said “for every action, there’s a reaction” thought about it for a little while and ultimately showed us how ugly it would have looked from the outside. So we didn’t make the change. Given that NBC execs expected ratings were going to go down during prime time, they should have better anticipated (and proactively dealt with) push-back from the affiliates. 
  • People love a juicy failure. There aren’t many jokes on talk shows or skits on Saturday Night Live when something succeeds. But when there’s a perceived failure of any kind (like The Leno Show at 10 PM), the comedians come out of the woodwork. That’s why leaders need to have thick skin, keep from getting defensive, and have a good sense of humor.

The bottom line: For some reason, I feel like ending this post with an unrelated joke from Johnny Carson:

If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey.

Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum.

My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers.

I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

2 thoughts on “Four Leadership Lessons From Leno Blunder”

  1. Bruce, great points. I completely agree that leaders today are afraid of failure because of the public condemnation. The politics of the court of public opinion has taken its toll on the culture of forward-thinking leadership. Failure should not be in direct opposition of financial reward, but a step in learning over the long term. I think Zucker tried very hard to innovate. For years, NBC has spiraled into a third-rate network, and he took a risk.

    But I think the problem he ran into was Leno and O’Brien themselves. The hyped anticipation of O’Brien moving to the Tonight Show slot, Leno’s show on primetime, and the fact that these two guys make fun of others for a living is a perfect recipe for publicity…the bad kind.

    I believe the problem Zucker had was that he simply didn’t anticipate the way this would play out if it all went bad. His mistake wasn’t failure, it appears to me that his mistake was no plan for damage control. No leader on the planet can see the future, but good leaders have good plans that extend beyond the ribbon cutting, plans that can be put in place depending on the outcome. No need to run through the the rumors and press here, but, to me, it’s easy to see that Zucker just didn’t have this well thought out.

    That’s what made Zucker look bad.

    I believe a good leader always sees the chess board three to five moves ahead.

    1. Paul: Great point. You’re right that leadership is like a chess match; if you’re only seeing the current move, then you are not going to win very many matches. Whenever I run a large program, I always try and identify the worse-case scenarios and put in place plans to respond if they happen. Zucker didn’t seem to have a “what-if” plan in mind at all. Thanks for sharing.

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