Washington Post: On Success with Michael Berland: Leadership on Leno

Leadership on Leno
By Michael Berland
Published January 14, 2010

Q: NBC’s bold decision to move Jay Leno into prime time has been a ratings disaster. How often does a roll of the dice hurt instead of help? Are gamblers more likely to succeed than those who are cautious by nature?

NBC President and CEO Jeff Zucker took a risk in bringing a late-night show to prime time. But just because the experiment seems to be a flop doesn’t mean — as some have said — that people should question Zucker’s value as a leader.

Zucker apparently championed the idea of stripping Leno’s low-cost comedy hour across the prime-time schedule in lieu of expensive-to-produce dramas. NBC has been trying to boost its broadcast business, which has been losing audience to the Internet and to cable channels, including those like Bravo, in which NBC has a stake, and which have thrived under Zucker’s reign.

What’s important is that the prospective new owner of NBC, Comcast Corp., has rightly shown confidence in Zucker, who signed a new three year contract. In fact, my co-author Doug Schoen and I included Zucker as an example of the success archetype we called the “natural born leader” in our book What Makes You Tick?: How Successful People Do It — And What You Can Learn from Them.

What makes Jeff Zucker a natural-born leader is his combination of skills — his unique vision, competitive spirit and, above all, his willingness to take risk, as with trying a new time-slot for this format that in recent decades has only really succeeded on late-night TV.

In our book, Zucker was profiled in good company along with others who aren’t afraid to take risks in their respective fields: the leaders of Sara Lee, Hearst Magazines, National Hockey League, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Major League Baseball.

Jeff Zucker himself said it best in his interview for our book:

.”…I believe you can take risks and try new things and not be afraid and not be beholden to anything that’s come before. There’s a degree of risk taking in everything. If you’re not willing to put yourself out there and take a chance — to go for it, to win the match –you probably won’t have the kind of ultimate success you’d wish for.

“If you’re not willing to try something new on the ‘Today’ show, to try a new kind of programming in prime time, you may never succeed in network television. It’s not for the faint of heart; you have to take risks. I think you have to be willing to fail. But if you’re not afraid of failing, then you probably never will fully succeed.”