The Top Ten Leadership Lessons From Jay Leno


Jay Leno leaves the Tonight Show on topFrom time to time I watch some of the late (and later) night comedians. I actually like several of them and dislike several of them. I never like crude jokes, but clever, witty, irony, puns... Jay Leno has always been a favorite. I like Letterman quite a bit as well. Leno just finished (for the second time) at NBC. I found myself reflecting quite a bit on the leadership lessons I saw in Leno, the leadership failures at NBC, and also the nature of change that is upon the networks when it comes to the younger generation of viewers. Which is where Jimmy Fallon comes in.

So, today is Leadership Lessons From Leno. These are only brief notes. A book could and should be written by someone about Leno's Leadership Lessons. I will have a post soon on  What Not to Do About Your Star Performer (or, Knucklehead Leadership at NBC). Then a post on Jimmy Fallon and Lessons of Change the Church Needs to Know.  With that, here are The Top Ten Leadership Lessons of Jay Leno.

1.  Even when you are the top dog, things happen that are beyond your control.
Leaders always must accept the reality that no matter how powerful, there are always factors beyond your control. Leno possessed an incredible calm, an unruffled, matter-of-fact, common sense, don't sweat, don't worry, go with the flow approach to his mandatory retirement. Grace, dignity, respect... kudos to Leno for showing us the way.

2.  Hard work pays off.
It was so impressive to see the incredible WORK ETHIC of Leno. Everyone talked about how much he loved his craft and how much he wanted to give the audience (the customer) a quality experience. As the years went on, he didn't coast, he didn't cut back... he gave 100% day after day. There was no sense of entitlement on his part. There was no sense that he had arrived and could now relax. 

3.  Love what you do.
I know I mentioned it in the commentary in the previous point, but it bears repeating. I know not everyone is able to do what they love, but if you truly love it, I think you will search it out. When you find what you love, then you will love to do what you love. This is vocation, as Buechner said, "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." When you love what you do, you have that "extra" commitment and staying power.

4.  Treat other people with respect and dignity.
Yes, Leno did this. Even when he poked fun at his guests, it was good natured. He liked his guests. If he disagreed, if they were on the show because of outrageous behavior and he was going to talk about it, he found a way to be respectful. He didn't play partisan games, favoring some and dissing others (unlike some other clearly biased comedians). Even as NBC was treating him "poorly" (in my opinion and that of many) and even though he poked fun at them for doing so, he did not cross the line into anger and bitterness like so many others do.

5.  Acknowledge how much you need your team.
I so love this about Leno. He loved his team. They were family. They meant something to him. They loved him. They worked hard and they had fun. Even though Leno was/is almost obscenely wealthy, he was still an ordinary guy and interacted with the team like an ordinary guy. Which leads me to the next leadership lesson...

6.  Humility and graciousness are the signs of Level Five leadership.
Leno was a good person, solid character, strong values... So he didn't fall into the authoritarian, snobbery, elitist, obnoxious, prideful, "I am above the rule and I am better than you (can you tell how I feel about this) kind of behaviors for which so many leaders are notorious. This also played out in the way that Leno did not retaliate or go on the attack when others attacked him. Letterman did say some pretty harsh things about Leno. Leno downplayed it and talked about how much he respected Letterman. 

7.  Have a life outside of work.
He did. He gave it a fair amount of time. He enjoyed his hobbies. Even though he was a very hard worker, he found a balance that worked for him. Of course it helps if you have a billion dollars or so and can buy air hangers to hold your car and motorcycle collection.

8.  Be your own agent.
Pretty amazing in this day and age. Leno DID NOT have an agent. Remember, an agent is only interested in what they can make off of you. No one is going to look out for your needs and interests in the way you will. It would be nice if we did... but we don't. You are responsible for you. So take responsibility. Learn what you need to about business and not just your craft. Leno did that and he did pretty well. 

9.  Know when you have to let go.
He went out on top. His ratings were incredible when he stopped. He could have kept going and he would have, if NBC had not "retired-fired" him for a second time. This time around, he knew it was time and he said, "It's time." "it's the right thing to do." It is so hard for leaders to leave. (Think of Joe Paterno... sorry for bringing up that painful memory of a leader who hung on way too long.)

Jay Leno final show surrounded by friends

10.  Do this and more and you will finish well and have a legacy worth leaving.
Leno did... Finish well... and have a legacy worth leaving. He was the number one late night comedy. Leno was and is deeply loved. He has wonderful friends and he is a friend to others. While he is done on The Tonight Show, he is not done. He will find things to do. He already is doing them. He was doing them even when he had his full time Tonight Show Gig.

Jay Leno, thanks for the good times and truly best wishes for your future. 

Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International

BrianRice@lcileaders.org