by Steve Adubato, PhD
Finally, I thought that Keith Olbermann had come to his senses. Olbermann, who has a history of being fired from multiple networks and blaming others when things go bad, was ready to communicate in a responsible, mature and accountable fashion.
As I listened to his appearance this week on Late Night with David Letterman, it started so promising. Olbermann responded to Letterman’s question as to why he was fired from his $50 million gig at the struggling Current TV cable network (started by Al Gore) by saying “I screwed up really big on this. I thought we could do this. It’s my fault that we didn’t succeed in the sense that I didn’t think the whole thing through.”
Wow, I thought. So far, so good. But then Olbermann continued. “You know, if you buy a $10 million chandelier, you should have a house to put it in. Just walking around with a $10 million chandelier isn’t going to do anybody a lot of good, and it’s not going to do any good to the chandelier.” WHAT? Look, as a communication coach, I’m a big fan of analogies that help explain difficult situations. But this one had me lost. Then Letterman, a great communicator himself, clarified by asking Olbermann, “You’re the chandelier?” Olbermann responded yes and the audience roared with laughter.
Olbermann must have thought that the audience was laughing with him. My instincts tell me that they were laughing at him. Think about his explanation as to why this $50 million experiment failed, on a show that Olbermann created from day one, where his bosses put up $250,000 to design a set exactly to his liking, hired the producers he wanted, and promoted him every way they could. Olbermann had recently been fired from MSNBC and was in media obscurity. Current TV offered him a big fat contract, built a network around him and made him the “Communicator in Chief.” Not bad for a guy with a track record of getting fired all the time.
But Olbermann publicly complained about the set that he designed, showed up for work sporadically, threatened not to appear on-air for major election night events during the Presidential primary cycle, and battled publicly with his bosses. And when the whole thing went bad and Current TV bosses fired him like they would fire any employee for such behavior, Olbermann took the offensive, blamed them for everything, and sued them for $40 million.
There’s a huge communication and leadership lesson in the Olbermann debacle. See, I know Keith Olbermann, and this is a pattern for him. I saw it firsthand when I worked as an on-air contributor at MSNBC. While he’s an exceptional on-air communicator, he is also rude, obnoxious, arrogant, and condescending. I dare you to find one circumstance where Olbermann took responsibility for anything that went wrong when he was fired from ESPN, FOX, MSNBC and now Current TV.
Look, I’ve been fired, let go or cancelled by different networks. It hurts. It’s embarrassing. You want to explain it as someone else’s fault. But as a professional with authority, influence, and power in a particular industry, as Olbermann has, you have to take some responsibility when things go wrong. Leadership is about being accountable and communicating in a responsible fashion, not blaming your “bosses” when the ship sinks. Simply put. Olbermann’s public communication around his firing is a classic example of the difference between someone’s IQ and their EQ, emotional intelligence quotient.
Great communicators must be emotionally mature and have the ability to look at themselves and their actions honestly. No matter how good a broadcaster Keith Olbermann is, he isn’t even close on that second count. The rest of us, regardless of our profession, should take note and learn from this.