Seven Compassionate Leadership Lessons From The Renaissance Man Who Helped Build HBO

Originally posted at Forbes.com.

Leader: Larry Carlson is the former president of HBO satellite services and a cable TV network pioneer. He retired when he was 49 and now spends his time creating beauty, philosophizing and supporting the people and causes he loves.

Lives in: Bridgehampton, NY

Life/Leadership Lesson: Honest communication can lead to trust first, then if you work at it, intimacy and eventually love in both personal and professional relationships will follow.

Leadership Motto: “Try to be of benefit to others and everything else will fall into place.”

Since visiting Larry and Jody Carlson’s gorgeous home for this interview last summer, I have had the honor to attend two more events there. They generously share the space with people and organizations they support like the Wellness Foundation that provides nutritional education to children and adults and the David Lynch Foundation that teaches transcendental meditation to at-risk populations. 

Larry designed the welcoming and Italian-inspired estate which includes the main house, guest accommodations, several meditation areas, an artist studio and a labyrinth. Yes, it is as heavenly as it sounds. His journey from his tumultuous childhood to where he is today is fascinating and offers a great tutorial on how to be an effective leader.

Larry was born in Minnesota where he experienced a childhood with a conservative upbringing in Catholic school and an alcoholic father. At age 12 his family moved to Southern California and Larry was placed in the public school system, a traumatic experience where he found it difficult to fit in. As a younger man, conventional education was a struggle for Larry, and he eventually left college during his senior year. However he marched into the world of work with a strong work ethic, having started working out of necessity, at age 13.

Many of my readers are too young to remember this, but when Larry began his career in the early 70s, cable TV was a fledgling media that wasn’t available all over the US. At the time, television was steadily on the rise but certain parts of the country could barely get a signal and cable tv was just emerging to fill that gap. There were only a few TV channels back then, and everyone was watching the same thing which created a sense of connection and community.

He started his media career working with a small firm that provided plans for early cable TV systems.  Here, he was given a lot of responsibility quickly and developed his gift for collaboration and working harmoniously with all different kinds of people. He also instinctively understood the value of mutual respect and communication, which he used to double the profit of a cable system in Connecticut in his twenties.

After the successful run in that role, Larry was relocated to Durham, North Carolina, where he witnessed the segregation. He learned a lot about the human condition during his time there as he observed racism and unrest. He realized that to be compassionate in leadership, you have to understand people from a variety of backgrounds who may be suffering.

In 1978 Larry was approached by HBO. We all know HBO as one of the largest cable subscription channels in the world, but at that time, it was focused on providing movies to hotels and only available in a few states. After working his way up in the cable business ranks, he would eventually become the president of HBO satellite services, responsible for business operations. His work there created the foundation for one of the most creative and well-regarded media companies of all time.

While in his executive role, he focused on saving rather than acquiring status through possessions and was able to retire at 49.  Since then, he has traveled with his amazing wife Jody who is a jazz singer, pursued eastern philosophy, become a masterful artist, designed homes, and developed a spiritual yet sensible approach to life, based on Buddhism. In fostering a greater sense of connection to himself through studying and reflection, he has found that the more we really get to know who we are, the happier we will be.

In our interview, he offered 7 timeless compassionate leadership lessons we can all apply to create purposeful careers and have a more positive impact on the people we influence:

1.    Practice honest communication. Communication is the cornerstone of any successful business or relationship. Honesty creates a deeper sense of connection; there’s an unparalleled level of understanding and work becomes easier and more efficient after that.

2.    Let go. Leaders work for their employees, not the other way around. Leaders are there to help their employees succeed, not breathe over their shoulder.

3.    Meditate. Larry points out that many of the most successful leaders and businesses all incorporate some mindfulness into the workday. Though he didn’t establish a mediation practice until later in life, he encourages entire corporate offices to cultivate a meditation practice for maximum success.

4.    Practice self-compassion. We simply can’t expect to be great leaders if we don’t take care of ourselves first and foremost. Larry knows that taking care of all aspects of our being – the physical, mental, and spiritual – are fundamental. If one isn’t taken care of, the rest will falter.

5.    Listen. Everyone is important, everyone has a role to play, and everyone wants to be heard. And a good leader listens to all. What you say matters but, most importantly, it’s crucial to be a good listener.

6.    Learn proactively. Despite struggling in college, he has become a voracious learner as an adult. Now he stresses not what you learn but how you learn it. Spending time on organizing your plan for learning something new is crucial.

7.    Know thyself. To be an effective leader you need to get to know yourself. With self-awareness, we are better able to serve others and ourselves.

Thanks Larry, for the lessons and the great reminder that compassionate leadership has always been an effective path to success. Compassionate leadership is just good leadership.