Leadership Lessons from... Howard Stern?
Over the past year, I’ve given talks at TEDxPresidio and AIGA Pivot about what I’m calling the DEO, or Designer CEO—a leader who holds the highest office in an organization and puts creativity, design, and innovation at the center of all its activities.
In thinking about ways to explain the idea of a DEO, I’ve naturally looked to the stories of other leaders as examples. And there are lots of great folks to choose from: people like Robin Chase, the founder or ZipCar, or Ray Anderson, the late founder and CEO of Interface Carpets. These are design-aware, big-picture, disruptive thinkers, and they illustrate my vision of the DEO.
One such person is Howard Stern. Howard, of course, is a divisive character: you either love him or you hate him. I love him, and I listen to him every day during my morning and evening commute. I’ve loved him ever since I was a young art student in New York City when Stern was shaking things up in the mornings on 92.3 K-Rock.
Over the years, Stern’s persona and the controversy that’s surrounded him have obscured some of his better qualities, including the fact that he is a very, very effective leader. Radio is a team sport, and Howard and his supporting cast have experienced phenomenal success and built a brand that’s thrived for nearly 30 years.
You don’t amass a track record like Howard’s without being a great leader. That’s why, love him or hate him, creative leaders can learn a lot from Howard Stern.
1. Let your people shine
Think of all the characters in the Stern universe that have become celebrities in their own right: Robin, Jackie “The Jokeman,” Beetlejuice, Baba Booey, Artie Lange, Ronnie the Limo Driver—the list goes on and on. Howard’s not afraid to share the spotlight, and he fosters a creative atmosphere that highlights the talents of his crew. What’s more, he’s loyal to his people, and they’re loyal to him.
2. Iterate constantly (but stay true to your core)
Everyone knows Howard as a radio host, but he’s also published best-selling books, starred in a movie, hosted his own TV shows, and been a pioneer in satellite radio. He’s jumped from platform and relentlessly experimented, all while never deviating from his central brand.
3. Respect your customers
Howard’s rude and crude reputation belies the fact that he has a profound respect for his customers, i.e., his listeners. He doesn’t talk down, and he never has lazy shows, which typically run every weekday morning from 6am to 10am. And he’s still surprising listeners: on New Year’s Eve this year, he asked his Twitter followers to send him their phone numbers so he could drunk dial them. Many obliged, and many received calls from Howard himself.
4. Give and take
Even a casual Stern listener knows that Howard is probably the best interviewer working today. Interviewing is a tricky art: you must simultaneously listen to and direct the conversation. The same can be said of leading a team. You’ve got to hear your team’s contributions and needs, but still point the group toward the final goal. Or you can wind up like this.
5. Remain human
At the end of the day, Howard is brutally honest and remains true to himself. He’s funny and he’s crude, but he just as often has moments of awkwardness or vulnerability. This, above all, is his defining quality. It’s what makes him liked by his listeners. It’s what helps him as an interviewer. And, ultimately, it’s what makes him a good leader. A DEO.