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Pragmatism Over Personality: NBC’s New Head Honcho Isn’t Exactly The Hollywood “Love You, Babe” Type

The entertainment business has long been filled with larger-than-life charismatic figures, both on-camera and behind the scenes. There’s a commonly-held belief that the players calling the shots are as charismatic as the characters portrayed on-screen (a belief perpetuated by entertainments like the long-running HBO series, Entourage.)  However, even in show business, effective leadership is not the result of some sort of intangible, other-worldy , mystical charismatic quality but rather on a set of real-world, nuts-and-bolts pragmatic skills of execution.

New NBC Universal chief executive Stephen B. Burke is of the school of thought that one need not be showy to effectively lead in the business we call show. According to an article by Tim Arango and Bill Carter published in The New York Times entitled “A Little Less Drama at NBC,” Burke isn’t exactly known as your typical Hollywood, “Love ya’, babe” schmoozer.  In an industry known for double talk and lip service, Burke is known for his direct, no-nonsense approach. Former employee at Disney, Michael Lynton told the Times, “He’s very direct. There’s very little beating around the bush.”  Tellingly, Burke was uninterested in being interviewed for the piece.

Burke’s record at Comcast, where since 1998, he has held the number two position behind Brian L. Roberts (the son of Comcast founder, Ralph J. Roberts) speaks for itself. Under Burke, Comcast’s revenues jumped from $6 billion in 1999 to $36 billion in 2009. Stocks went from $8.19 a share in ’99 to $15 in 2009.

Burke’s early dealings at NBC already suggest a push away from a culture of personality, characterized by politics and internal struggle, and into a more open culture. Rather than holding meetings with executives in his lush office in Rockefeller Center, he’s been holding them at a chain coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan. In a year in which the company suffered brand depreciation in the midst of the Jay Leno-Conan O’ Brien fiasco, perhaps a more pragmatic, less personality based brand of leadership is essential to put NBC Universal back on top.