Personal Humility + Professional Will

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My least impressive resolution for 2015 was to finally read the ESPN history book that had collected dust on my nightstand for longer than I care to guess. Mission accomplished. Once I dove in, the 832 pages didn’t take long to complete.

The story that stuck out to me was that of George Bodenheimer, who started out in the mailroom at ESPN and ended up its president. I had never heard of him. Bodenheimer is the perfect example of what Jim Collins would call a “Level 5” leader (see above). Look no further than his tiny Wikipedia page for example.

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN utilized an interview approach in its historical account of the wildly successful sports television network. Today, I simply want to share my favorite entry that describes Bodenheimer. It is from John Skipper, who came to ESPN after senior roles with companies like Disney and Rolling Stone, and who has since publication of the book succeeded Bodenheimer as ESPN president. Read it, and form your own conclusions.

George defines the culture now. Steve Bornstein [former ESPN president] was respected, admired, followed—and feared. George Bodenheimer is respected, admired, followed—and loved. George has been at his job since 1998. At some point, 1999 or 2000, he created this once-a-year strategy meeting. He gathers the top people, and what does he do? He says we as a group are going to decide our priorities as a company. And we now have this annual thing we do about shared success—it’s team-team-team. By nature, I’m a cynic and even a slight elitist—I moved to New York, I studied satire. That’s what I was studying at Columbia—eighteenth-century satire—so I’m of a sardonic turn, and I can tell you that this culture is not cynical. It’s “team.” It’s complete enthusiasm, Moonie-ism in a positive sense. People believe in it. And that priorities thing, which you can make fun of—it’s a little goofy, a little corny—we go together, we say the following four, five things are our priority. One year our priority is “Make ratings go up.” One year it was “we have to make dot com work.” So the whole company has been told, you might work in event production and operating camera and traveling around the country, but we’re also looking to you to help us figure out how to make ESPN.com work.

You get a little card. We print card with the priorities on them. You carry your card around. On the back is the mission and the company values. Really simple stuff, easy for a smarty-pants cynic who likes living in New York. But you can’t make fun of it, because it works.

There is a cult of George in our company. George would hate that. George is the most influential person in sports; he actually doesn’t care and actually doesn’t like it—he’d be happy if it went away. To the rank and file, George walks on water.

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