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Blog // Thoughts
September 7, 2015

Jon Stewart On Collaboration And Leadership

Now that Jon Stewart’s run as host of The Daily Show has come to an end, a lot of us are wondering how to put his sixteen-plus year success-streak in context. Not just the awards, ratings and loyal fan base, but also the way Stewart nurtured and helped develop the careers of other comics, like […]

Now that Jon Stewart’s run as host of The Daily Show has come to an end, a lot of us are wondering how to put his sixteen-plus year success-streak in context. Not just the awards, ratings and loyal fan base, but also the way Stewart nurtured and helped develop the careers of other comics, like Steve Carrell, John Oliver, Aasif Mandvi, Kristen Schaal and of course, Stephen Colbert.

Employee Of The Month

A few months back, Jon Stewart was interviewed by Catie Lazarus (of the Employee Of The Month podcast). Thankfully, we can see the whole interview on YouTube. There’s a lot for fans of Stewart to enjoy, but what really caught my attention was a series of comments, around the middle of the interview, about the kind of working environment Stewart tried to create during his time on The Daily Show.

Stewart rejects the idea that a creative workplace needs to marked by sensitive egos riding an emotional rollercoaster. In a strikingly frank moment he says,

“The energy spent managing troublesome people, the energy spent soothing ridiculous tantrums and outbursts, is energy that cannot be spent cracking a story, energy that cannot be spent rewriting a joke.”

Stewart isn’t just saying a workplace full of conflict and tension is unpleasant, he’s going further to point out how it can get in the way of doing the work well. Being a good long term leader, in a creative field, involves nurturing a culture that values of human cost involved in working together.

“The whole goal of the show was, to create a system that was repeatable but not rote, because we have to synthesis so much material every day, so you need to have a system that’s redundant but not soul crushing. So, the idea was, can we build a machine that still has room for inspiration and oxygen, but can get people home without breaking their spirit. And that’s a collaboration, that’s a group effort, that can’t be done from one person at the top, everyone has to decide the strength of this will be in that belief, as opposed to a sense that an organisation that everyone is reading The Art Of War…”

Success Isn’t Finite

While Stewart sees human energy as a finite resource that must be carefully managed, he has a broader, more abundant view of success.

“The idea that someone else’s success diminishes yours – that’s a bullshit idea.”

Viewing success this way frees us to celebrate other people’s efforts, rather fear them. Success, talent, knowledge, insight, humour – these are not zero-sum games. Your funny joke doesn’t make my joke un-funny. My good song doesn’t make your song suck.

The opposite of Stewart’s formula, creative energy is finite, success is infinite, is actually what we find in a lot of toxic workplaces, the situation where energy is treated as infinite (work longer and longer hours) and success is finite (rewards and recognition are infrequent and for the few. This kind of workplace encourages people to “play the game,” to never really “say what they mean” and to assume everyone is working from a “hidden agenda.”

Redefining Good Work

There’s probably no better measure of good leadership than the ability to nurture and mentor success in others. Listening to Jon Stewart’s answers, it’s not hard to see how The Daily Show was able to succeed for so long, while launching and sustaining so many careers. If I could boil down Stewart’s ideas into a few actionable steps, it would look like this.

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