New ESPN Book Reveals Level 5 Leadership - Charlie Warner

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Cover image for  article: New ESPN Book Reveals Level 5 Leadership - Charlie Warner

Last week a new oral history titled Those Guys Have All the Fun: The Inside World of ESPNby James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales hit book stores and Kindles to well-deserved favorable reviews.

The reviews I read concentrated on sexual harassment capers, narcissistic personalities such as the ultimate bad boy Keith Olbermann and bumptious Chris Berman, and boozy parties and escapades – in other words, all the fun stuff that will appeal to sports fans and ESPN addicts (of which I am one).

Woven artfully into the warp and woof of sexual harassment, self-absorbed personalities, and protean drinking is a business story about a startup with little chance of success that was rescued by Getty Oil and some brilliant, hard-nosed executives such as Bill Grimes, Roger Werner, and Steve Boornstein. These visionaries had to cope with often clueless, penny pinching, visionless, egomaniacal old-style media executives, epitomized by narcissist-in-chief Michael Eisner when he was head of Disney, 80 percent owner of ESPN.

The old-style media executives Grimes, Werner, and Boornstein had to report to were domineering, Type-A credit hogs such as Stuart Evy, Herb Granath, and Michael Eisner – prototypes for a current crop of Type-A, greedy media moguls such as Barry Diller, Sumner Redstone, Rupert Murdoch, Les Moonves, and Mel Karmizan (the short list). The media for these moguls is a bong for personal enrichment – it's all about them getting rich.

But in Those Guys Have All the Fun,a new type of media executive emerges, what Jim Collins, the author of the best-selling management book of all time, Good to Great, would refer to as Level 5 leaders.

Level 5 leaders typically are insiders who come up through the ranks of the company, have a compelling modesty, give credit to others, and are superb listeners. Collins writes that Level 5 leaders build "enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will," and that they "channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious -- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves."

While reading Those Guys Have All the Fun, through their own and the words of others, Disney CEO Bob Iger and ESPN CEO George Bodenheimer come across as clearly Level 5 leaders. Collins could have been describing these two exceptional chief executives who are virtually polar opposites of the vast majority of the current crop of me-first legacy media moguls.

Bodenheimer has done an excellent job of establishing a fans-come-first culture at ESPN. And the rank and file have guzzled the Kool Aid – on the back of the business cards that they proudly hand out is emblazoned "our mission – to serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played."

You can imagine what is printed on the back of Keith Olbermann, Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Les Moonves, Rupert Murdoch, Howard Stern, or Mel Karmazin's business cards. I image it's just one word in huge type – "ME."

Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at charleshwarner@gmail.com.

Read all Charlie’s MediaBizBloggers commentaries at The Media Curmudgeon.

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