Was Leno sheepwalking?

Posted January 31, 2010 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

Readers of our monthly e-zine, The Roundtable Recap (see a back issue here), would have caught our latest book review on Seth’s Godin’s little book of big ideas: Tribes.  It’s an excellent read for too many reasons to mention, but one of the concepts that Godin throws out is that of individuals who choose to “sheepwalk” through their careers by sticking with the status quo, never challenging assumptions, doing what’s been told.  He paints a picture of the hazards of this, seemingly, “good” employee approach and encourages individuals to play the role of the “heretic”: challenging the status quo and adding greater value as a way of increasing job security (amongst other things). 

In my expereince, it’s typically is the “good” employees that get canned when the times get tough.  (Great employees who are continually adding value by challenging the “way we’ve always done it” with smart, actionable ideas are less likely to feel the axe or maybe they’re just quicker to walk before the axe falls).  To prove the point, let’s look at Jay Leno for a second.

Last week, he appeared on Oprah to tell his side of the Conan/NBC debacle.  I didn’t know much about Leno’s back story, but after seeing him talk through it, I thought: “he’s a classic sheep walker!”.  For those of you who missed it, here’s brief summary of Leno’s story:

  • 5 years ago, when he was hosting the Tonight Show (to #1 ratings), NBC execs came in and told him that Conan wanted his slot and, to keep him, they wanted Jay to retire in 5 years;
  • Jay shares with Oprah that he was “devasted” and that it “broke his heart”… so what did he do?… He announced his retirement in 5 years and that he was handing it to Conan (do you hear any sheep sounds yet?);
  • Fast forward 5 years and NBC tells Jay that they want to put him on primetime, which he agrees to.  The reasoning there was that he wanted to try it, he was comfortable at NBC (baaaaaaa) and keep his team of 150 odd people employeed.  Nice guy.
  • Then, ratings tank (the #1 tv metric) for both Leno and Conan and NBC decides to pull the plug on Leno (he gets fired a second time)… but then don’t want to release him from his contract, so they throw out the fab idea of putting him on for a 30 minute slot before Conan.  NBC assures Leno that Conan is onboard with the idea, and the rest is history.

Leno now finds himself back hosting the Tonight Show, Conan has walked away with a giant payout and his integrity in tact, and Jay Leno has the unenvious task of trying to rebuild his brand from bad guy back to good guy in the wake of a stream of criticism (Jimmy Kimmel rakes him over the coals here). 

By all accounts, Leno did everything his employer asked him to do.  He was a good “sheepwalker”.  Now, he’s got the unenviable task of resurrecting his battered brand and rebuilding the Tonight Show.  There’s little doubt what NBC will do if he’s unable to rise to the occasion.  Three strikes and you’re out (again!)

I was with Oprah who seemed to be left with her jaw hanging open trying to figure out why Jay Leno would allow himself to be repeatedly treated so disrespectfully by NBC.  Why didn’t you just walk? she asks on several occasions and seems genuinely perplexed.  ‘Cause he’s a nice guy sheepwalker, Oprah.

If you’re being the “model” employee, pick up Tribes right now and read about sheepwalking.  Expectations of leaders are changing.  Make sure you’re not using antiquated models to define job security.  Don’t be a sheepwalker.

Happy leading!


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  1. Norm Nopper says:

    Check out a movie called “The Late Shift”.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116835/
    It’s about the behind the scenes fight between David Letterman and Jay Leno to succeed Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. It’s entertaining and informative. Jay may be a sheepwalker, but check out his erstwhile manager, Helen Kushnick.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Norm… thanks for the movie referral. Haven’t seen that one yet, so I’ll check it out and keep an eye open for Helen. Your comment makes me wonder if people start “sheepwalking” later in their careers, once they’ve grabbed their brass ring…?