Being successful starts with being happy. Personally happy. It“™s something Ted Leonsis, former AOL vice chairman, owner of the Washington Capitals, film producer, and philanthropist knows about first-hand “” thanks to a life-changing moment.
Back in 1984, Leonsis was a 27-year-old entrepreneur who’d sold his first company for a cool $60 million when he boarded a plane one morning. In mid-flight, something went horribly wrong. As the plane, and its terrified passengers, braced for emergency landing, Leonsis made a pledge: “Please God, I don“™t want to die “¦ I promise that if I live, I“™ll give back more than I take “¦ so that when my time really does come, I“™ll be satisfied with the way I“™ve lived my life. I am not satisfied now “¦ I want to change.“
Leonsis has been a student of happiness ever since. First came a list of 101 things he wanted to do in his life “” 81 down, and counting. Now, comes his new book, The Business of Happiness, a smart, practical guide for leaders “” and those in the making “” on ways to find success in work and in life.
In one of his first extended interviews since the book“™s publication, Leonsis joins ExecutiveBiz Contributing Editor Lisa Singh for a discussion of happiness “” and the lessons he“™s learned since his own “moment of reckoning“ 25 years ago. Excerpts of the discussion follow:
ExecutiveBiz: Over the past few years, we“™ve seen an explosion in the topic of happiness “¦ books like Geography of Bliss and an Atlantic Monthly cover story. Now, you“™re weighing in. What“™s fueling all the talk about happiness?
Ted Leonsis: The economy played havoc with people“™s views of success. It shook the foundation of a lot of preexisting ideas like, “Hey, I thought if I bought a house “¦ and I was a homeowner “¦ and my house appreciated in value“¦ and I made a lot of money “¦ and I could be an entrepreneur, that would make me happy.“ Everything got turned upside down. Everyone had their reckoning.
ExecutiveBiz: Your book says, essentially, money can“™t buy happiness. Some would say that“™s not so convincing coming from a millionaire.
Ted Leonsis: Well, if you read my book, you know “¦ I was young, I sold my company for $60 million, and I declared victory. I then had this reckoning. When you have a life-changing event you start to think about what you“™ll miss “” and it“™s not your houses, cars, or jewelry. Just think about: When you do something really, really bad, you know what your punishment is? Solitary confinement. Quality of relationships is key. With friends, family, and employees.
ExecutiveBiz: Speaking of employees, a lot of them are skipping flex time for fear of losing their jobs in this economy. How can leaders help make them happy, too?
Ted Leonsis: The best managers today, and the best companies, are deeply connected to their employee base. I had to laugh, the number one show the other week was Undercover Boss “” they“™re making leaders “heroes“ because they now know what their employees do. Isn“™t that an indictment? Like, what else should leaders be doing?!
ExecutiveBiz: Are you suggesting leaders should don blue-collar jumpsuits and hang from dump trucks, in the interest of sharing the happiness?
Ted Leonsis: Here“™s what I“™m saying “” I“™ll give you a recent example. I was chairman of the board of RevolutionMoney, and a big investor. We sold the company to American Express for more than $300 million. During the last two weeks of the deal, there were two nights where it was evident that junior members of the team would have to pull all-nighters. I decided that if I was asking them to do that, then I needed to be there, too. I would never ask them to do what I wasn“™t willing to do myself. I pulled all-nighters and I“™m old!
ExecutiveBiz: That“™s amazing. What other top lessons have you learned in your 25 years of studying happiness?
Ted Leonsis: First and foremost, if you“™re happy and on a path to self-actualization, you leave yourself open to great success in many of your personal and professional endeavors. The second thing is companies focused on building stronger communities of interest “” and on allowing their employees to have high levels of self-expression “” do better financially than companies that keep financial metrics front and center.
ExecutiveBiz: You write that, sooner or later, everyone will have a moment of reckoning. What then?
Ted Leonsis: Reckonings come in all sizes: small, medium, and large. Out of your reckoning the thing to do is to make your life list, then give yourself permission to be happy.
ExecutiveBiz: That sounds kind of simple. Is it?
Ted Leonsis: It“™s funny. If I ask people to make a business plan, two days later they come back with a beautiful deck. It“™s rote, they can do it. But when I ask them, “What“™s your life plan for happiness? How will you make your employees and communities you serve happy? What will be the metrics for success?“ “¦ they don“™t know what to answer. That“™s a key point in the book: Just like you would run a business, you can plot your path to happiness.
ExecutiveBiz: That brings up the age-old question “¦ Is happiness a function of planning? Or does it “just happen“?
Ted Leonsis: It“™s a process. I have bad days, I“™m not always happy. I metric some things like a business man. Every morning I keep a calendar and write down: How many hours did I sleep last night? Did I get exercise yesterday? Was yesterday a happy day? Did I drink the right amount of fluids?
ExecutiveBiz: Why fluids?
Ted Leonsis: I think clean running water is a basic deliverable that we take for granted. My parents always told me to drink a lot of water. So, anyway, if I have three unhappy days in a row I make changes.
ExecutiveBiz: You write about giving back as a driver for happiness. Isn“™t that a tall order for busy professionals?
Ted Leonsis: People say, “I“™m too busy to volunteer “¦ I“™m too busy to date“¦“ These are total cop-outs. I“™m pretty busy but every single day I mentor three people: someone whom I“™ve kind of adopted and from whom I learn about the issue of homelessness; an ebuddy, “Big Ken” Holden of Tampa, who is mentally disabled; and a Hoop Dreams mentee whom I met when he was a junior in high school. I speak to all three individuals every single day. If I can get deeply involved in changing someone else“™s life, anybody can.
ExecutiveBiz: What“™s your secret to time management?
Ted Leonsis: I focus on signal, not noise. I hate long meetings. I hate decks. I read my email quickly, respond quickly, and don“™t watch a lot of television. Very infrequently do I have empty cycles. It“™s amazing what you can get done. It“™s like in business: “When you need something done, give it to the busiest person in your company.“
ExecutiveBiz: Religion is also something you speak a lot about in your book as a driver for happiness.
Ted Leonsis: No, faith. Everyone has to have their own faith. I“™m not a religious zealot but I make no bones about it: When my plane was circling I prayed: Let me live, I will play offense with the rest of my life. I will live without regret. I will give more than I take.
ExecutiveBiz: You were raised Greek Orthodox and are still aligned with the faith. Meanwhile, more than one-quarter of American adults have traded the religion they grew up with for another or they“™re now spiritually unaffiliated. How should they begin to get spiritually plugged-in?
Ted Leonsis: I can only speak for myself. The base of any religion is happiness. I think becoming part of a community and finding your higher calling is key. For me, I chose to follow the Jesuit ideal. That built into me that you should be of service to man. There is some kind of biblical overtone to that. I“™ve found it a positive business trait as well.
ExecutiveBiz: So, when all is said and done, it seems being happy is about giving more than you take. Looking ahead, what“™s next on your 101 life list to accomplish?
Ted Leonsis: I want to win the Stanley Cup. That“™s pretty straightforward, right?
ExecutiveBiz: And after finishing The Business of Happiness, how can readers begin their own journey toward happiness?
Ted Leonsis: Make your list. Write your life plan. Metric your happiness as much as you metric your success in business. It can be done.