You Don’t Get To Be ‘King of All Media’
Just By Talking Dirty
By Geoffrey Rowan
Dec. 17, 2011
Disparaged and reviled by some as a “shock jock,” and adored by legions as the King of All Media, Howard Stern has created billions of dollars in value for the entertainment industry. He is a success by just about every measure and has created success for those around him. And he has done it through brilliant leadership – personifying the text-book traits of a great leader. If Stern’s empire was built on office supplies rather than edgy entertainment his leadership style would be studied at Harvard, INSEAD, the London School of Economics and all the world’s great business schools. It would be a must-read case study in the Harvard Business Review, mandatory for every executive education program. Here’s how Stern lives leadership.
His vision is clear, concise, and easy to understand. He communicates it often and he measures his performance constantly. It is to be “the king of all media.” He has had best-selling books, a box-office hit movie, a top-performing radio show (broadcast and satellite) for decades, cable TV success and has just signed a lucrative contract to be a judge on top-rated America’s Got Talent.
Stern has navigated the notoriously treacherous egos, politics and business practices of the entertainment industry for decades, all while maintaining his core team, and in many cases elevating their abilities beyond any level they could have achieved on their own. He recognizes where team chemistry creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Supporting cast member Robin Quivers, for example, was a local market radio news reader. She lacks comedic talent but she was an early supporter and part of an ensemble that evolves over time but remains recognizable.
Stern’s loyalty seems personal and genuine, even when it’s difficult and possibly risky. He worked with comedian Artie Lange through Lange’s many lapses into substance abuse, and a suicide attempt. He suffered through the abuses of mediocre comedian Jackie Martling, who seemed to be constantly trading off his connection to Stern, sometimes at risk to Stern’s own brand.
But Howard’s most important loyalties are for his audience. He has never betrayed the core following whose support has been the foundation of his success. Forays into other media – even the prime time America’s Got talent – have always been built around his offering to his core audience. His brand extensions (into other media) always provide additional value to his base rather than depleting them.
The result is that Stern has a legion of brand ambassadors who are out in the world every day, promoting the Stern brand online, through prank phone calls to call in shows, or in water-cooler conversations at the office.
Honest feedback, accountability
His loyalty isn’t blind. Listeners to his radio show know that Stern gives tough, in-the-moment, and very specific feedback to his people when their performance does not meet the standards expected. That feedback is always in service of providing the best entertainment experience for his audience – an experience that is always pushing toward the vision to be “the king of all media.”
Stern is an innovation engine. He created the so-called shock-jock genre. His version stands alone as a sophisticated and constantly improving iteration, head and shoulders above pale imitations. He pushes the boundaries of entertainment, whether with content – Crackhead Bob, the late Hank the Angry Dwarf, Eric the Midget et al – or technology, such as the Sybaran female masturbation saddle or Real Doll sex mannequins. But his biggest innovation, and risk, was the move into satellite radio.
He is slow to tamper with the core value proposition for his consumers, but is aggressive and demanding in seeking new ways to present and build on that value.
A leader decides what to do and what not to do. Throughout his career, Stern has made tough decisions always in support of his strategic vision. He has pushed boundaries past the breaking point, and as a result has been fired several times. He made the risky transition into satellite radio, knowing that it would mean some lost audience but betting that the value to his most loyal consumers would outweigh the loss of less loyal followers. He was also able to leverage that risk into a significant cash-generation opportunity for himself and his team, but at the same time invested significantly back into his core offer to produce a higher quality product. He has also declined lucrative opportunities that he felt could move him too far away from his core.
Confidence, with a willingness to admit weakness
One does not declare oneself “the king of all media” without a significant measure of either self-delusion or self-confidence. Stern has a track record of delivering. Those around him know that if he says he is going to achieve a goal, he will very likely achieve it. But his self-confidence is not pure egotism. He holds himself accountable to the same high standards he demands of others, and he willingly mocks his own perceived shortcomings, whether that’s penis size, a shopping list of neuroses, or a temporarily raspy voice from a head-cold or a late night.
Authenticity and Integrity
There is a mistaken perception that charisma is a significant leadership quality. Leaders may or may not have personal magnetism. Stern may or may not. That is a highly subjective judgment. More important qualities for effective leaders are authenticity and integrity.
Stern’s most powerful asset is that for his audience, he seems to have erased the line between his entertainment character and his real self. He is authentic, believable. He seems to be who he says he is. He seems to live the way he says he lives, by the values his character talks about every day. He has to. The people he seems to take greatest pleasure in ripping into are those he believes are hypocrites.
There is also a mistaken perception that integrity is synonymous with sobriety and conservative sexual and social mores. It is not. Integrity is the quality of living by the values you espouse – of doing what you say. Stern has courageous honesty. For that reason, he will never win over a segment of society with different beliefs. He rejects sexual hypocrisy – on one hand sex is a fundamental necessity to maintain human existence and we live in a highly sexualized society; on the other hand we demonize sexuality and vilify people who are open and honest about sexuality.
Leaders get in trouble when there is a gap between what they say and what they do. While Stern has built his media empire with no significant scandal, countless charismatic business, political and religious leaders have destroyed themselves by falling into the huge chasm between what they say and what they do. That matters.
Stern is child-like in his curiosity, whether it’s learning karate, chess, photography, or understanding the sex drive of lesbians. Curiosity keeps him fresh. It activates other parts of his brain, enabling him to approach issues from creative and ever-changing perspectives. It feeds his hunger for the continuous improvement.
A great leader almost has to be neurotic. He or she must obsess about quality, about competition, and about new opportunities. Is the leader getting the best out of individuals, teams, processes and tools? Where is the weakness? How can it be addressed? Stern plays out his neuroses in front of millions of people every day. He does it with too much thought and too much purpose to be insane. Therefore it must be courageous leadership.
When you strip away the content of Stern’s media empire – which some find too uncomfortable to deal with or morally reprehensible – what’s left are the values and behaviours of excellent leadership.
Stern has earned the leadership title King of All Media.