Here’s a formula for chaos: Collect a diverse and volatile group of eccentric comedians and comedy writers, and give them a nearly impossible task with a just-barely-possible deadline. Oh, and have them start over again every week for five months a year. To even attempt such a thing, you’d have to be either insane or a brilliant leader.
Saturday Night Live’s creator and producer Lorne Michaels is a brilliant leader. He’s managed somehow to get 871—and counting—shows live on the air, on time. The ability to create and maintain a safe environment in which inevitable conflicts can be managed and resolved allows Michaels to keep his impossible formula working.
Lorne Michaels: The master of psychological safety
“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” said actor Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. Being funny requires creativity, discipline, care, and more than a dash of serendipity as joke-meets-audience and either soars… or falls flat on its face. Maybe there’s some kind of magic involved. It’s no surprise that any machine capable of cranking it out on a regular basis would have to be something special, to say the least, and occasionally combustible. The many former staffers who’ve written about the experience of working on SNL make clear what the SNL machine is like up close: A bit crazy, a bit dangerous, and continually threatening to spin out of control. SNL’s longevity and success depend on Lorne Michaels’ uncanny ability to nudge this unwieldy monster toward an 11:30pm EST Saturday show, come what may.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg tells Big Think: “Saturday Night Live never should have worked, right? You have a bunch of comedians who are kind of misanthropes to begin with, and they’re all kind of egomaniacs. And yet for some reason when Lorne Michaels put them in a room together everyone was willing to kind of get along. They were willing to put aside their ego and create this amazing show together.”
Putting out emotional fires since 1975
In his Big Think Edge lesson, Duhigg explains how organizations like Google and creative institutions like SNL use psychological safety to build the most effective teams. In the latter case, Michaels’ relationship-management mastery has proven to be the ever-combustible show’s most critical propellant.
As Charles Duhigg describes in the video, being an emotionally intelligent leader is a classic win-win. Each time Michaels reaches out in support of a staff member struggling through the chaos of the weekly melee, you could say he’s just solving a production problem for himself. At the same time, though, he’s making a real and profound connection with that person. The type of personal closeness it establishes isn’t likely to fade simply because an employee eventually moves on, and a wide and varied network of talent is a benefit any emotionally intelligent executive would be fortunate enough to experience. As best-selling author James Andrew Miller recounts for Vulture, Lorne transformed himself as a leader.
“Maya Rudolph was talking about how comfortable it is now to be able to say anything to Lorne, to be able to talk to him about anything. People feel much more comfortable about approaching him. And I think he is settled into a role as the godfather of it all. He’s very, very generous with his time when people need him. And they know that. There were times, there were a lot of cast members in the ‘80s and ‘90s who spent a lot of their time trying to figure out Lorne and trying to get noticed by him or trying to get responded to by him or that were afraid to talk to him. There’s less of that now.”
Then there’s the built-in potential for career-spanning gratitude. Gaining a foothold in any business can be difficult, and in show business, highly unlikely. The list of people Michaels has patiently guided is long: Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones, among many others. SNL was able to benefit from these extraordinary talents for a time, and it was obviously a worthwhile exchange, with many of these stars and lots of lesser-knowns remaining thankful today for that first step on a road to a long and lucrative career in the entertainment industry. Today, these SNL alums are everywhere, adding up to what amounts to a vast Lorne Michaels empire, all thanks to his emotionally intelligent touch.
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