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Taking Over: 6 Leadership Lessons from Jimmy Fallon

On February 17, 2014, Jimmy Fallon took the reins of The Tonight Show—a show that has been an American tradition since 1954. In two short months, he has doubled the ratings expected and is leading his seasoned competitors, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. Even with all the history and prestige behind The Tonight Show, Fallon has exceeded all expectations by simply being himself.

Taking on something that has been there before isn’t easy. It may be a business that someone started before you, following a favorite manager or taking the baton from the former president of your community group. You are different, but nothing around you is.

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

1. Not everything has to be new and different.

Fallon brought his style from his prior show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and made a few adjustments. There was no big splash of what will be 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, and a band, The Roots, and sits at a familiar desk to interview his 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, like 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 because they matter to you or to others.  Learn what works and update it your way to feel fresh and new. Help your audience, customers or team members see that you are building on the past, but with your unique new 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 it has always been done. After all, there is over 60 years of history in his line of work. Rather than begin by asking, What does everyone expect me to do, or, How can I fit in here, approach it based on your strengths and talents and ask yourself, What special gifts can I bring to this situation? This mindset changes your frame of reference and brings your best chance of success. It’s hard to be successful and something you’re not at the same time and, at a minimum, it’s exhausting!

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.  The audience gets to see what appears to be the real deal.
 

4. Involve others early and often.

This is a noticeable difference in the new Tonight Show. Fallon involves his guests in the show every night. Guests 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 re-enacted Footloose, and he and January Jones played beer pong with frisbees. Many of the guests have to spend more time upfront for their segment rather than sit down and answer questions. They are engaged and have built a rapport with the host as a result.

In my upcoming 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 the meeting, organize the 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 last week, Fallon did a tip of the hat by creating his own Top 10 list of why Letterman decided to retire. He started by sharing what an influence Letterman had been on him and how much he admired him. He 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.  This mindset also brings relationships, partnerships and trust. These are essential in not only starting a change, but in life.
 

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Fallon may be a great actor, but he comes off as relaxed and enjoying his guests. He laughs with his guests, involves them in the fun and let’s everyone in on the joke.

For him, this has to be one of the most demanding and exciting times of his career. Yet, in key times, we can be tense, afraid and worried about what will happen if it 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. It feels like Fallon has decided he’s going to do it his way and enjoy realizing a goal I’m sure he has always wanted.
 

I know your life isn’t a late night talk show. Yet, I see an interesting example when I watch the new Tonight Show.  If you are taking on a new team,  job or business with a 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 Justin Timberlake may be just barely out of reach.  

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