Arthur Carlson of “WKRP In Cincinnati” was a leader to learn from. Lesson #1: Turkeys can’t fly.
By Craig Irons
Admittedly, major holidays are an odd time to think about leadership. Yet every Thanksgiving I can’t help but think about one of my favorite leaders from classic TV: Arthur Carlson, the affable, easily flustered station manager on “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
“WKRP In Cincinnati,” a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982, focused on the personal and job-related tribulations of the staff of a bottom-feeder AM radio station. The ensemble cast of characters was both colorful and well-drawn. Among them was Andy Travis, the ambitious, vagabond program director; Dr. Johnny Fever, the burnout disc jockey; Herb Tarlek, the plaid-suit-wearing sales manager; Les Nesman, the naïve newsman given to mispronunciations; and Jennifer Marlow, the knockout receptionist who was anything but a dumb blond.
Then there was Arthur Carlson, affectionately dubbed “the Big Guy” by his staff, a character that, I think, is worth reconsidering as a leadership role model.
Carlson’s leadership style might best be described as a combination of ineptitude, disengagement, and good intentions. He appeared to know just enough about his business to get by and he never seemed to be particularly busy. And on those rare occasions when he rolled up his sleeves and tried to get actively involved in running things, disaster usually ensued.
Like the time he planned a Thanksgiving promotion (without the knowledge of or input from his staff) in which live turkeys were dropped from a helicopter hovering over a shopping center. The result was chaos. The falling birds littered the pavement, crashed through the windshields of parked cars, and sent panicked pedestrians scrambling.
Such a debacle, it would appear, would mark Carlson as a poor leader. But I’m not so sure. In fact, there were many qualities that Arthur Carlson embodied that I think any leader would be wise to emulate.
For starters, Carlson was man of values and conviction. He was unfailingly honest and sought, without exception, to do what was right, whether it meant standing up to censors threatening a boycott of WKRP, or sabotaging his own campaign for city council because he had carelessly revealed an opponent’s drinking problem during a televised debate. Anyone who ever has been lied to or misled by a supervisor, or been disgusted by the highly publicized actions of misbehaving CEOs, can appreciate such honesty and integrity.
And while it was largely tied to his lack of involvement in the operation of his business, Carlson was a model empowering leader. He stayed out of his people’s way and, for the most part, let them do their jobs. Granted, some of WKRP’s employees did not do their jobs very well (Would you have bought anything from Herb Tarlek?), but everyone appeared to work hard and enjoyed the freedom to function without much meddling or micromanagement from above.
Then there was Carlson’s genuine interest in those who worked for him. When he looked at his team, he didn’t see disc jockeys or a receptionist or a program director; he saw people. And he built solid relationships with all of them. At one time or another during the series’ run, every character sought him out for advice, which he always offered with the greatest empathy and sincerity, if not always the greatest confidence. As a result, he enjoyed a level of loyalty and trust among his staff any leader would envy.
What’s more, Carlson was accountable in ways many leaders are not. Yes, dropping live turkeys from a helicopter was his idea, but he took full responsibility for the unfortunate consequences. In one of television’s most remarkable confessions, he conceded that, “As god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
In short, Arthur Carlson was the kind of man I’d like to know, but also, in many important ways, the kind of person many of us would like to work for. That is not something to be easily dismissed.
Bridging the years between “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cheers,” “WKRP in Cincinnati” often gets overlooked as one of the all-time great workplace comedies. This is a shame, because at its best it was as good as any.
It’s unfortunate that Carlson is overlooked, as well. Not because he was a great leader (he wasn’t), but because he was a quality person--something that we all should strive to be, especially if we want to become great leaders.
Something to think about this Thanksgiving.
(Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the DDI Directions newsletter in 2003 and has been adapted by the author for this blog post.)
Craig Irons is managing editor, DDI’s Corporate Marketing.