Leadership Lessons: Oprah's Journey to "OWN" Cableland

Leadership Lessons: Oprah's Journey to "OWN" Cableland
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This past weekend ushered in a new year, a new cable channel and a new chapter in the fascinating, influential journey of Oprah Winfrey.

The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) began broadcasting New Year's Day at noon with a range of offerings from "Kidnapped by the Kids," a program about children that claim their father's time back from his computer and Blackberry, to "Master Class" with rapper Jay-Z, a show that highlights the lessons in a given person's life journey, to an onstage Q&A with Oprah experts Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Suze Orman.

In the weeks leading up to the network's launch, the media has rallied around one certainty concerning the new venture: Oprah is taking a huge gamble in leaving her blockbuster network television show to assume creative ownership of an entire cable network in an already crowded landscape. Much as been made of how different "cableland" is from "networkland," how long and difficult the road to launching OWN has been, and the fact that the current programming for OWN does not include a daily talk show with Oprah. How, media experts ask, can she and this large-scale endeavor succeed without the tried and true formula that helped create Oprah's power and reach?

If we step back from this small war of (slightly gloomy) words and think about Oprah as more than a celebrity switching venues and instead, as a leader who is conscious of her enormous impact, a different frame emerges. All effective leaders are navigating a course toward a worthy end. All effective leaders keep that destination in constant view. All effective leaders have to travel their chosen road (and bring others with them) in a way that allows them to keep getting right with themselves about what they are up to and how they are traveling. Finally, effective leaders are dedicated teachers.

By these benchmarks, Oprah's move to OWN makes real sense. It offers her an unprecedented opportunity to expand her reach in a bigger, more varied classroom than the Oprah Winfrey Show affords. As technology has rocked all kinds of media distribution, Oprah and her team at Harpo Productions have experimented broadly with venues, channels and personalities. In this context, OWN is a sprawling petri dish in which this savvy entrepreneur and onscreen presence can explore the evolving ways in which people are connecting with ideas, aspirations and each other. Perhaps most important, the network gives Oprah a chance to chart a new leg on her own life journey. And, as she does this, to expand and continue defining her role as a leader of thoughtfulness and integrity.

At this (very interesting) inflection point, my money is on Oprah.

Nancy Koehn is a noted historian at Harvard Business School and authority for providing analysis on the social and economic impact of entrepreneurship and on leadership in turbulent times. Nancy expands on the leadership lessons of Oprah in her latest iBooks bestseller, Oprah, Leading with Heart, available on Amazon and iBookStore.

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