Thursday, February 4, 2010

Embracing Others - and Change: Leadership Insights from Peter Guber and Jeff Jarvis

I have the pleasure of working at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership (, an innovative school that offers an Executive MBA to talented creatives preparing for greater management responsibilities in industries like advertising, television, journalism, and new media. While the majority of the program takes place in Germany, we hold separate two-week teaching and learning modules in Asia and the U.S. We just completed the latter module, an intensive fortnight of sessions split between New York and Los Angeles, and I am still digesting the rich and diverse learnings offered in courses, site visits, talks by industry leaders, and just plain interactions with the Berlin School’s own fascinating program participants.

Among our guest speakers in January were two luminaries who at first glance seem completely different. Jeff Jarvis is a career journalist, having created Entertainment Weekly and been Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, who now directs the Interactive Media Program in the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is now known more broadly as a prolific blogger (at and the author of What Would Google Do? A tireless advocate of re-thinking the business and conceptual models underlying journalism, Jarvis believes that social and digital technologies have utterly transformed the news (and other industries) into an interactive, collaborative enterprise. His next book, tentatively titled, “Beta,” outlines the power of collective, ongoing revision and re-making. Appropriately, as a work-in-progress itself, the project’s core ideas were the subject of Jarvis’s public President’s Lecture to Berlin School friends and the wider New York creative community on January 20.

Peter Guber is an icon in the entertainment world. Currently the Chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, he has thrived for more than three decades as a creative producer and business leader across motion pictures, music, television and multimedia. Guber has held executive positions with Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment. He co-founded Casablanca Record and Film Works, formed Polygram Pictures, and was the co-owner of the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company. His credits as a producer or executive producer include such films as Taxi Driver, Rain Man, Batman, and Philadelphia. As well, Guber holds a professorship and teaches regularly in the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. On January 27, he spoke to the Berlin School EMBA cohort at UCLA's Entertainment and Media Management Institute about the power of storytelling for leaders and, in doing so, shared several of his own key tenets for leadership.

So what lessons and insights were shared by this odd couple? Much was different, of course, in their respective styles and areas of industry focus. Yet in reflecting on their ideas, I was struck by how many of the core ideas offered separately by Jarvis and Guber dovetailed and seemed to spring from common values and perceptions about organizations, the media and success. Here are a few illustrations:

1. “Technology isn’t the answer; it serves the answer.”
These are Guber’s words, though they resonate with the persistent message from Jarvis that the seachange we’re experiencing in social and digital media has less to do with technology and more to do with mindset and the dynamics of collaboration that are served by that technology. For both men, it is the exchange of ideas and passions between individuals – however that exchange occurs – that is paramount.

2. Leverage the power of collective intelligence
Jarvis is at the forefront of thinking through how the intelligence of collaboration can yield not only richer creative work and better information but also more efficient and innovative business models. Guber speaks more generally about the power of social networks. For him the leveraging their power is ultimately about leveling the playing field on which companies compete. Again, rather than going it alone, both men acknowledge and embrace the wisdom of the crowd.

3. Relinquish control
The turn to collaboration requires that individuals give up some of the control that ego and often institutions insist on. Guber puts it simply, “Accept power and opportunity by surrendering control.” Jarvis’s entire notion of “Beta” seems likewise predicated on a willingness to release ideas or projects that are incomplete – and with them individual control over their future shaping – in order for others to improve them more than any one individual could.

4. “Manage by objective – Not Yours, Theirs”
The emphasis on others is recurrent and defining for both men. Leadership of organizations or communities of ideas comes not from tirelessly driving home one’s own vision or idea but from embracing the visions or ideas of others. This should not suggest passivity, of course, and no one would claim that either Guber or Jarvis shrinks from asserting their own views and priorities. They both insist, though, that individual efforts and specific goals should be regularly and constructively subjected to the wisdom, power, or potential of others – including competitors and challengers.

5. Abandon “the myth of perfection”
This myth is Jarvis’s and central to his analysis of contemporary journalism. The pursuit of perfection by news professionals both insists on the value of finished products (stories, newspapers) rather than works-in-progress and reserves the right for trained professionals and insular institutions rather than wider publics. Interestingly, Guber, too, speaks directly to the negative impact of pursuing an unattainable goal instead of releasing an already strong achievement. Quoting a friend who works at NASA, he notes that “perfect is the enemy of success”; striving to be “good enough” is what enables things to get done and organizations to move forward.

6. Someone else is out there…
Maybe the most intriguing of parallels between the two speakers was their nearly identical invocation of a complete stranger who they believe drives their work. For Jarvis, it is the “student in a dorm room somewhere” who is creating a new network or releasing an idea to a community who will grow it in unprecedented ways. For Guber, it is “someone halfway around the world” developing an idea or technology that will transform the entertainment industry. For both, besides providing motivation to work harder, these strangers embody the greater worlds of knowledge and imagination that even the most talented individual leader or thinker or even single organization recognizes exists beyond them.

For me, the crucial thread running through these shared ideas is a committed openness to change – in industries and institutions, in teams and in individuals, and perhaps most in the romantic ideas we tend to harbor about the individual leader or writer. One might counter that such an attitude toward openness is less possible for others than it is for those like Jarvis or Guber who, as the latter himself remarked, are already observing the world “from 30,000 feet,” well-positioned and successful. I’m quite certain both would disagree. The values of collaboration they espouse, served and supported as they are today by extraordinary media networks and communities of common interests, can breed success and productivity at every level.

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