Ted Turner on Visionary Leadership

Point: Ted Turner’s tips for seeing over the horizon

Story: Many leaders are described as “visionary” — I’m always curious as to how they got that way. Is it something they’re born with, or something we can we all learn?  I had a chance to participate in a Silicon Flatirons Q&A with media mogul Ted Turner as we probed this question with Ted.

Before CNN, people didn’t think that a 24-hour-a-day news channel was viable.  How did Ted prove them wrong? “It helps to see over the horizon,” Ted said.  ‘Most people can’t do it, but I think your brain is like a muscle. And just like any other muscle, you can use it and your brain will improve.”

Ted elaborated: “I have a 128 IQ, but 140 is genius.  I was in the 97th percentile, so that means 3 percent of people were smarter than me. I knew I was going to have to work hard if I wanted to accomplish something in life. So I read a lot — classics, warfare, Alexander the Great — I used my brain all the time. Everything I did was education.  Others just shot the breeze, wasted time — nothing wrong with that, but you can’t get to the top doing that.”

Ted’s answer points to a combination of aptitude and hard work. (I think it’s interesting that Ted thought being in the 97th percentile meant he’d have to work hard if he wanted to accomplish something — it reminded me of Andy Grove’s “only the paranoid survive” philosophy.)

What did Ted see over the horizon? As Ted described it, the idea for CNN was born of his own desire to stay on top of the news but, as a busy executive, not having time to watch the news during the two times a day it was on during the 1970s. “I knew I was gambling with CNN, but I knew it would work,” Ted said. “At the time, the news came on at 6:30 and again at 11pm. I never saw the news — it was inconvenient. I knew that having news on 24 hours a day so you could check in anytime was something that people would want.”

Beyond CNN, Ted was also working to build a multichannel universe. CNN fit into this universe perfectly.  In the 1970s, three broadcast networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — controlled the programming people could see.  For example, sports games across the country were televized, but they couldn’t be seen outside the local area because the broadcasters had a monopoly.  “The broadcasters had carved up the games,” Ted said, dividing the NFL, AFL and Monday Night Football between them. “Everyone paid the same prices and made the same profit. All three networks were happy, but I wasn’t happy” — customers weren’t being served, and incumbents had no incentive to change.

This is where Ted’s reading and habit of learning came into play again. “It was in early 1975 that I saw an article about communications satellites in Broadcasting magazine,” Ted recalled. Reading the article, Ted realized that he could use one satellite “antenna” in space to cover all of North America.  He’d found a way to compete with the established networks.

There’d be more hard work along the way — “We sweated payroll for ten years,” Ted said — but Ted relished the challenges. “The way to lead is with infectious enthusiasm, get everyone enthusiastic about what we’re doing.”

* Fit your current strategy into the larger picture: Ted’s vision for CNN was part of his overall goal to build a multi-channel universe
* Lead with infectious enthusiasm

Silicon Flatirons Q&A November 13, 2009

Call Me Ted, by Ted Turner

3 Comments »Entrepreneurs, How-to, Innovation, interview

3 Responses to “Ted Turner on Visionary Leadership”

  1. Claire Walter Feb 28th 2010 at 02:08 pm 1

    Turner has unquestionably been a visionary, but I wonder whether the kernel of the idea was sown in his 97th percentile mind in New York, where WINS-Radio has all-news since the ’60s. The announcers refer to it as “10-10-wins.”

  2. Andrea Meyer Feb 28th 2010 at 06:32 pm 2

    That’s an interesting fact about WINS-Radio. Although I don’t know whether Turner encountered it, there are plenty of examples of innovators taking an idea from one arena and applying it in another. What surprised me about Ted Turner’s story was that it took 10 years of operations before CNN was finally accepted.

  3. Glenn Mar 1st 2010 at 09:13 pm 3

    Great observation. Was raised on 1010 WINS and was around the industry for the launch of CNN on cable systems. Ted was pretty wild (Captain Outrageous) back in the launch days, but the vision was superb. CNN was certainly accepted by viewers before 10 years, profitability may have been another story. A number of cable news channels challenged Turner before the 10th years. He bought out a competing venture from ABC during that time as well.
    I often wonder what he thinks of how the format has evolved(?)
    Having to play 2nd fiddle to FOX must not sit well with him.