Editorial: Lessons from The Great One – What Can You Learn from Jackie Gleason?

Jim MathisBy: Jim Mathis, IPCS, CSP, MDiv
J&L Mathis Group, Inc.

“How sweet it is!” -Jackie Gleason

If you saw Smokey and the Bandit, you are familiar with the work of Jackie Gleason playing the iconic Sheriff Buford T. Justice. He was an entertainer with a string of creativity years before the hit movie came out in 1977.

“The Great One” will forever be known for his successful business decisions. He starred in the hit series, The Honeymooners, in the early days of television and revived the show several decades later through smart foresight.

What you can learn from his creativity will inspire you to go where nobody else has gone in your field and industry. Here are 4.5 lessons he taught us about business:

1. Remember the past and give the people what they like most.

Jackie was one of the earliest television stars. He was in a show for the CBS network (the same network who hosts The Big Bang Theory). Knowing television was a successful medium, he signed a 20-year agreement with the network. He got paid whether or not he was on a show. Gleason was such a hot talent that the network executives readily signed the agreement. When he starred in The Honeymooners 1950s situation comedy, he knew he was on to something special. He had it filmed in a new style of video for the day (Kinescope). The show wasn’t that big of a hit its only season on television, but he was able to parlay his success into “reruns” – something few had even conceived of at the time. Jackie also used The Honeymooners for future roles on television and even revived many of the shows plots and characters on his variety shows in the late 1950s and 60s.

In 1985, Gleason revealed that he had saved 39 episodes of the classic show, just when classic television (TV Land) was coming into style. “The Lost Episodes,” were opened up to a new generation of viewers and he became a star once again.

Gleason knew he was on to a product that would transcend the moment – a blue-collar situation comedy… decades before Roseanne, Archie Bunker, Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy. He had the forethought to keep the Kinescope tapes hidden in a personal vault, for a day they would be revealed to the world. Reruns and classic television cable networks hadn’t even been dreamed of yet, but Jackie saved the tapes for the right time when they would.

Remember Classic Coca Cola? What is your organization doing that is a “classic” transcending time? We live with a generation who loves “retro” ideas but has no concept of luggage without wheels, variety shows, family meals together, any non-internet communication, Western movie genres, sitcoms that are funny and earned rewards. What worked years ago that customers would like a taste of again?

2. Admit your mistakes.

In the 1960s, Gleason hosted a television program that he designed around a celebrity game show format. The opening night was so terrible that the network was planning to cancel the entire series. The next week Jackie came out in front of the live audience and apologized for the previous week’s program. He immediately turned it into a variety show format.

In early 1961, the United States launched a failed attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba. It was known as “The Bay of Pigs” because that was the location of the ground assault in Cuba. The invasion was a disastrous defeat within hours. Soon afterwards, President John F. Kennedy told a stunned country about the CIA operation.

Although the failed attack had been planned prior to his inauguration, Kennedy approved it. He admitted his failure and mistake on national television. It earned him respect that he would need months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis where the U.S. and Soviet Union came close to nuclear war. If more leaders (politicians, are you listening?) would admit mistakes and ask forgiveness, people would trust them more.

3. Go where no one else dares to go.

In the early days of television, you either originated shows from New York or California. The stars were there and it cost too much to produce a program from another location. The Ed Sullivan Show was based in New York. CBS hosted most programs from “Television City” in Hollywood. But Gleason loved Miami (because of year-round golf and the community). He called Miami “The Sun and Fun Capital of the World,” and produced the show there every week.

Viewers loved the opening camera shots of the warm Florida beaches and began vacationing in South Florida more often. It was a bonanza for the local economy. Filming the show before a live audience in a different territory paid off for Jackie then… and still does for Miami today. The auditorium there is named for Jackie Gleason because of his impact on the city.

Where can you go that nobody else would ever think of going? Steve Jobs led Apple into the world of music (iPods and iTunes), cellular phones combined with music (iPhones), tablet computers (iPads) and cloud networking (iCloud). Truett Cathey led the way in developing the chicken sandwich for Chick-fil-A. Nikola Tesla led the way inventing alternating currents and hydroelectric plants.

I met a man who developed an app that any person can use to video their own house/belongings and send to a moving company to develop a moving estimate without sending an estimator to the house or making an appointment. The app does in minutes what takes most companies several hours. His company can now do 10-15 estimates for customers in a day as opposed to a prior maximum of five due to time and distance.

How can you make the trip easier for someone else (or yourself as Gleason did) and defy the industry traditions? Where is your “sweet spot” for business?

4. Brag on your audience.

Gleason always said in the closing monologue: “The Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!” The crowd would erupt with cheers and applause. The locals loved this and responded favorably to his show. Once again it drew attention to Miami Beach, but more importantly, it also put the attention on his audience instead of himself. Gleason gave the audience credit each week for the show’s success and returned thanks to them on a regular basis. No wonder they cheered!

It always helps to brag more on your customers than yourself. Just ask big companies like Southwest Airlines, or small businesses like Columbus Bowl (a family bowling center in Ohio). They brag on their customers instead of themselves and reap the benefits. Rock and country musicians often shout out the local city names in concerts to get the audience energized. Gleason did it before it became a trend and set the standard.

How can you turn the attention to your customers and have it reflect back on your brand?

4.5 Don’t choose to be the villain.

An interesting footnote: The idea of the 1960s cartoon show, The Flintstones, was almost completely lifted from The Honeymooners, right down to some of the plot lines. Jackie was mad enough to sue the production company, but was advised that he would be a villain if he sued a popular children’s cartoon show.

Maybe that is a fifth lesson every leader can learn from today:

“You can’t sue Fred Flintstone!”

Brad Darrach wrote in People magazine on Jackie Gleason at his death, “Orson Welles dubbed him ‘The Great One,’ and he wore the epithet as proudly as an emperor wears ermine, charming and tickling and bullying us until we took him at his own measure.” (July 13, 1987).

I’ve always admired his work. Gleason could be funny one moment, then show pathos and sadness the next, and still stay true to himself.

Leaders who want to reinvent can gain inspiration and learn from someone who didn’t mind showing both a fun side and deep side within the same hour. He created characters to show every side of his humanity and stay alive in the short history of television. Gleason said, “I knew that nobody could be on television week after week as themselves and exist for any length of time, because no one has that rich a personality…. So I knew that I had to create some characters.”

Permission is granted to reprint this article provided the following paragraph is included in full:

Jim Mathis, IPCS, CSP, MDiv. is The Reinvention PRO™, an International Platform Certified Speaker, Certified Speaking Professional and best-selling author of Reinvention Made Easy: Change Your Strategy, Change Your Results. To subscribe to his free professional development newsletter, please send an email to: [email protected] with the word SUBSCRIBE in the subject. An electronic copy will be sent out to you every month. For more information on how Jim and his programs can benefit your organization or group, please call 888-688-0220, or visit his web site: www.jimmathis.com. © 2016 J&L Mathis Group, Inc.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of the above article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.

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