6 Lessons About Change in Leadership from Jimmy Fallon

UPDATED: May 6, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 10, 2014
Jimmy Fallon

On February 17, 2014, there was a change in leadership and Jimmy Fallon took the reins of The Tonight Show—a show that has been on air since 1954. He increased not only its viewership, but the count of its social media followers. Even with all the history and prestige behind The Tonight Show, Fallon exceeded expectations simply by being himself.

Taking on something that has a history isn’t easy, whether you’re running a business somebody else started, following a favorite manager or taking the baton from the former president of your community group. You are different, but nothing around you is.

Tips for a successful change in leadership

I’ve spent years studying how individuals start changes and I’m intrigued by how Fallon has done it in an industry with such a long-standing formula. Fallon, through example, offers some wise lessons on respecting traditions and history while bringing your own brand to the party. 

1. Not everything has to be new and different when there’s a change in leadership.

Fallon brought his style from his prior show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and made a few adjustments. There was no big splash of new and different. He incorporated his style and approach naturally and let the audience catch up with him.

2. Respect tradition—to a point.

Fallon has kept some late-night talk show traditions. He has a sidekick, Steve Higgins; a band, The Roots; and he sits at a familiar desk to interview guests. While the format feels familiar, he has adapted it to fit himself. Roots band members and Steve Higgins are all part of the fun, and Fallon uses music to involve his guests, such as the History of Rap with Justin Timberlake. He didn’t blow it up and start over. He found his way to make the familiar seem new.

If you want to remake something that has been around for a while or done before, find traditions you want to keep, those that matter to you or others. Learn what works and update it your way to make it feel fresh and new. Help your audience, customers or team members see that you are building on the past while adding your own unique twist. New doesn’t have to be scary.

3. Show up as you—not what you think others expect.

It would have been easy for Fallon to feel he had to conform to how The Tonight Show has been done in the past. After all, there are nearly 70 years of history behind it. In your own life, rather than beginning by asking, “What does everyone expect me to do?” or, “How can I fit in here?,” approach these moments based on your strengths and talents. Ask yourself, “What special gifts can I bring to this situation?” After all, it’s hard to be successful and something you’re not at the same time.

Fallon’s style is low-key, funny and conversational. He seems more like someone you’d have fun hanging out with than a comedian you watch from the audience—something which allows that audience to see what appears to be the real deal.

4. Involve others early and often when there’s a change in leadership.

This is a noticeable difference in the Tonight Show—Fallon actually involves his guests in the show. They are there to be part of it, more than just be interviewed. He and Will Smith did their take on the Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing, Kevin Bacon reenacted Footloose and Fallon and January Jones played beer pong. As a result of this involvement, his guests are engaged, having built a rapport with the host.

In my book, Make Waves, I share that involving others upfront and including them as partners in change is how you build interest and commitment. We react differently when we are watching as guests or spectators than when we are invited to join in.

How can you involve others early? Invite others to plan a meeting, organize an outing or help you create your new product. Make the shift from me to we.

5. Demonstrate the abundance mentality.

After David Letterman announced his plans to retire in 2015, Fallon did a tip of the hat by creating his own “Top 10 List” of why Letterman decided to retire. He began, however, by sharing what an influence Letterman had been on him and the industry and how much he admired him. Fallon wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the talents and success of others—even his competitors.

It shows confidence to share admiration for someone who does what you do. There is more than enough success to go around for all of us. 

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Fallon may just be a great actor, but he comes off as someone who is enjoying the conversations he has with his guests. He laughs with them, involves them in the fun and lets everyone in on the joke.

For him, taking over The Tonight Show had to be one of the most demanding and exciting times of his career, and it feels like Fallon is doing it his way. Yet during key times in our lives, many of us can be tense, afraid and worried about what will happen if something doesn’t go well. When I look back, there were important times in my career when I could have enjoyed the moment more and worried less about doing everything right.

I know your life isn’t a late-night talk show. Yet, I see an interesting example when I watch The Tonight Show. If you are taking on a new team, job or business with an existing legacy and traditions, find success your way by being who you are, letting others be part of it and enjoying the moment—even if a duet with Timberlake may be just barely out of reach.  

This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Nick Mickolas/flickr

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.