Oprah's Chicago School of Economics

How on earth did Oprah Winfrey--an unlikely media mogul if there ever was one--get so popular, powerful and rich, all at the same time? Ever since she announced at the end of last week that she was walking away from her legendarily popular syndicated talk show in 2011, the airwaves have been abuzz with discussion about what it means, what impact it will have ... and how she managed to get this successful in the first place. 

In yesterday's New York Times, columnist David Carr argued that Oprah Winfrey should be studied in every business school in America--not only for the smart moves she made, but also for the mistakes she didn't make. She didn't go public with her company, so she retained control. She didn't lend her name to other people's products. When she decided to add a magazine to her stable, she created her own, with such a clear sense of branding that she put herself on each and every cover. She didn't use her wealth to invest in fields she knew nothing about. Oprah did extend her brand into new shows, from Dr. Phil to Rachel Ray, but her offshoots all had the same feel and market as the mothership. And she didn't try to cash in on every possible profit opportunity, including the success of the books she turned into overnight bestsellers. 

Oprah's branding success, according to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, was due to the fact that she steered her business through "personal choices," like a woman who has an enviably clear and innate sense of what looks good on her. Which is undoubtedly true. But that complicates the matter of how one would teach or replicate Oprah's success in b-school.

Oprah Winfrey, after all, gives a whole new meaning to the "Chicago School" of economics. A meaning that would make Milton Friedman, the father of the adage "the purpose of business is to make as much money as possible for shareholders," turn over in his grave. Oprah never allowed shareholders, of course, which simplified the matter. But, still. In an era where the primacy of the bottom line ruled triumphant, Oprah gave away cars, eschewed commissions on products she made popular, and turned down the short-term money that going public or selling the company could have brought. And made $2.3 billion as a result of it. 

Scholars could parse all her decisions for wisdom about brand management, risk, leadership, growth strategies, marketing, and internal R&D investment. They might even find places where her success seemed to illustrate well-known models or schools of thought. Someone is probably working on it right now, as a matter of fact. Which is all well and good, because there's certainly a lot of wisdom that can be gleaned from the story of Oprah's successful climb from a local Chicago talk show host to the CEO of her own production company and network, while becoming a seismic cultural force and, arguably, the most powerful and wealthy woman in America. 

The trouble is, Oprah's success isn't just the sum of her strategies. The engine that not only drove those particular strategies, but also made them successful, was a deep sense of identity, authenticity, and purpose that can't be imitated or crafted through method. If Oprah has a deep and guiding understanding of her audience, it's not because she's methodically observed them. It's because she's lived their struggles, hopes, joys and sorrows. And those struggles gave her first a connection, and then a purpose, from which all other decisions organically flowed. 

In the world of Silicon Valley, it's said there are two types of entrepreneurs: missionaries, and mercenaries. Mercenaries can make a lot of money if they're smart and have good strategies. But missionary entrepreneurs are the ones who change industries and the world--not only because they continue on no matter how hard the going gets, but because they bring to bear an irresistible combination of passion, authenticity and sense of purpose bigger than mere profit or themselves. Success, for them, is as much about impact as it is about profit. Which is, ironically, how many of them become incredibly profitable. 

Clearly, Oprah is a missionary entrepreneur. But how do you teach someone to be a successful missionary? Even Polonius' advice to Laertes, "to thine own self be true" is insufficient. If asked, I suspect Oprah would say that first you have to learn who you are, where you came from, how that affects and informs you, and what matters in the world. You also have to care about something bigger than yourself, and imagine a way in which your particular skills could allow you to make a difference in that area. And whether you seek that path out, or stumble upon it along the way, you have to care about making that difference enough that the vision of it keeps you going through the dark, and can act as a compass to steer your decisions along the way.  

Add to that some smarts, savvy, and sharp thinking about content, brand management, marketing, and growth, and you have a legend in the making. But those last bits are the only pieces that can be taught. Honest self-knowledge, authenticity, passion and purpose are harder to acquire. Most often, they emerge from battles fought in the midnights of our solitude, if we manage to scrounge up the courage to face what we find there.  

But if you can't teach the intuition that emerges from those internal journeys, you can at least teach its importance. Asking "what would Oprah do?" might not be a bad exercise when contemplating tough or tempting business options. It's not a quantifiable model, of course, and the results can't be proven. But it wouldn't be a bad placeholder while encouraging students to explore enough about themselves and the world to develop a true-steering compass and passionate purpose of their own.   

Note: I will be offline for the next week, returning Friday, December 4th.

Photo Credit: Flickr User whoohoo120