• Entrepreneur of the Month

Ted Leonsis Shines A Light On The Business of Happiness


Ted Leonsis, serial entrepreneur
Author, “The Business of Happiness”

Article and interviews by Hope Katz Gibbs

“The happiest and most successful people I know have in common with one another not just an ability to function with multiple communities, but a real desire to do so,” writes Ted Leonsis in his new book, “The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Life and Work.”

Surely, any entrepreneur would love to know the secrets to Leonsis’ success — much as they did a decade ago when Jack Welch’s GE ideas seemed like the best path to follow for many business owners.

But this book, co-written by John Buckley who was Leonsis’ friend and PR director when he was an executive at AOL, focuses on self-actualization — the top of the pyramid in what Abraham Maslow termed the Hierarchy of Needs.

“What a man can be, he must be,” Maslow explained. “This forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need pertains to what a person’s full potential is, and to realizing that potential.”

It started in a plane

In the first chapter of Leonsis’ book, we learn that self-actualization was a goal that the prosperous Internet executive has worked to accomplish since 1984. That was the year he boarded a plane from Florida to DC and nearly lost his life.

“When we were going down, I wasn’t exactly praying,” he admits during a book promotion in February held at the 6th and I Synagogue in Washington, DC. “I was negotiating. If I live, I remember telling God, I promise to do a better job.”

Of course, the plane landed safely. And a few days later, Leonsis had come up with a plan.

Ted Leonsis’ Life List

The weekend after that life-altering event, Leonsis says he decided to create his now famous “Life List” of 101 things he’d like to do before he dies.

“In the 35 minutes we spent unsure of whether the landing gear was going to work, circling the airport, burning off fuel, and learning how to brace for a crash-landing, I had to face up to something I really didn’t like: if that plane crashed, I wouldn’t die happy,” he writes in the book.

“It was a reckoning, a wake-up call. I had all the toys money could buy. At a ridiculously young age I had achieved what all believe is the American Dream, and for a poor kid from Brooklyn, New York, it had all seemed to come easy. But I wasn’t happy.”

At that moment of discovery, Leonsis says he got his priorities straight.

Topping his list is the section on Family Matters: “Fall in love and get married.” Check. “Have a healthy son.” Check. “Have a healthy daughter.” Check. “Take care of mother / father.” Check. “Take care of in-laws.” Check. “Take care of extended family.” Check. Still on the list: have grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and leave all financial matters in great shape for family members upon passing.

Financial Matters was second on the list, and of the 11 items listed most have been checked off including: pay off college debts, attain net worth of $10 million after taxes, $100 million after taxes, zero personal debt for family, and create world’s largest media company. The items left to do: attain a net worth of $100 billion after taxes, create $1 billion in value with an outside investment.

Among his Possessions Leonsis has checked off a beach home that stays in his family, a jet, a yacht, a convertible Porsche or Mercedes Benz, a great piece of art, a personal collection of watches, and a Ferrari. Things he’s still hoping to attain: a mountain home that stays in the family, and a desire to support someone who makes a great breakthrough in science or art.

He’s checked off most of the Charities he’s wanted to support, including giving $1 million to his alma mater Georgetown University, where he also sat on the Board. He also has checked off his goal of making a major impact on a children’s charity, starting a family charity foundation, and having a memorial named after his family. Still to do: Giving $100 million in his lifetime.

On the Sports front, the owner of the Washington Capitals who is primed to take over other sporting teams and arenas, has accomplished all but one of his goals in this category. Still left to do: Win a world championship, play at St. Andrews, go to a World Cup, and get a hole-in-one.

Leonsis also has Travel and Stuff goals, but for those details, you’ll need to buy the book.

The bottom line, for “The Business of Happiness,”:“www.thebusinessofhappiness.com.”:http://www.thebusinessofhappiness.com/ and Leonsis, in general, is to encourage everyone — from entrepreneurs to stay-at-home moms — to build their own Life List.

Insights from Leonsis’ co-author, John Buckley

What did Leonsis’ co-author, John Buckley, learn from working with him on the book, and also at AOL where he was Executive Vice President for Corporate Communications from 2002 to 2007?

“I’ve actually worked with Ted since 2001, so I’ve learned a lot along the way,” Buckley shares. “Ted is the exception to the biblical adage that it is harder for a rich man to get to Heaven than a camel through a needle’s eye: he is the camel through the needle’s eye, a man of great wealth who is just an incredibly fine human being.”

In fact, the book stemmed from an ongoing conversation that he and Leonsis have had about happiness since 2004.

AOL was not always a happy place to work, so we had plenty of time to talk about happiness,” he says. “I buy the premise of his book—I accept the six tenets he outlines in it—even though in one important respect we are very different: Ted is an extrovert, and I am more of an introvert, which makes the notion of participating in multiple communities more difficult for me.”

If he could advise entrepreneurs to take away one leadership lesson from the book, what would it be?

“Ted’s belief is that happiness drives success, not the other way around,” Buckley insists. “Constructing a happy business — a business which answers to multiple constituencies, not simply financial analysts, Wall Street, or your personal bank account — is the surest way of being successful.”

“I happen to think that’s true. Businesses that have a higher calling, and think about the interests of all of their stakeholders — employees, community, and their shareholders — are companies that are built for long-term success.”

Buckley says that although he has never drawn up so formal a list as Ted’s, they are very similar in their list-making and organized pursuit of goals.

“Checked off on my list is running a marathon, publishing a novel, working in a presidential campaign, writing a best-seller (thank you, Ted), getting married and having a child (thank you, Anna), and visiting Bhutan. Still to be achieved: learn to speak Italian, hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim, visit a free Tibet.”

Inspiring others

Virtually every day, Buckley notes that Ted will forward emails from people who have been inspired by the book.

“It’s really quite wonderful. Honestly, if one person is made happier than he or she would otherwise have been, it will be sufficient. To this end, we seem to be on to something. Writing the book was a happy experience, and so of course we were successful.”

Praise for The Business of Happiness includes:

Alex Ovechkin, two-time NHL Most Valuable Player—Washington Capitals, says: “A happy team can be a winning team—that’s why you see me with such a wide smile on my face. I love my teammates and our fans and our coaching staff. Our owners believe in creating a place where we all care about each other. It is all about following Ted’s belief in happiness and success. I buy into it completely, and it really works; I believe Ted’s book can help you become MVP in your life, at work, and at home.”

Ken Chenault, CEO and Chairman, American Express Company says: “Ted Leonsis is one of the most creative minds in business. For more than twenty-five years he has been shaping the digital world that is now such an important part of our lives. In The Business of Happiness, he offers a personal guide to navigating the traditional boundaries between work and life. His insights on business, career planning, and how to succeed in today’s 24/7 environment reflect the wisdom of a renaissance man whose interests range far beyond the realm of technology or commerce.”

Don Graham, CEO and Chairman of the board, The Washington Post Company says: “This wonderful book is as bouncy, ebullient, energetic, and likeable as its author. It contains much sage advice, dozens of great stories, and guest appearances by everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Alex Ovechkin. You can decide whether it contains the secret of happiness; it definitely holds several hours’ very pleasant reading.”

Check out Ted’s Tips for Entrepreneurs.

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