Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Book Review: The Operator.

On a former music industry executive's recommendation, I read The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood by Tom King, then a Wall Street Journal reporter.

I got what I expected and what I didn't.

The Expected

I expected a biography about a colorful entertainment mogul who became a multi-billionaire. In this vein, the book provides many details about how business is conducted in Hollywood--whether music, television or movies.

Geffen has been remarkably involved in all three and more. He has even achieved success on Broadway, including at least one Tony Award. This aspect of the book--Geffen's rarified interactions within this sphere--reveals many amusing, if not amazing, anecdotes about celebrities (especially musicians) and shows.

The book, for example, discusses how Geffen secured John Lennon's first recording in over five years--1980's Double Fantasy. He astutely appealed to Yoko Ono--and in so doing, appealed to John. (This echoes a talent discussed below).

The book also delves into the Disney/Eisner-Katzenberg dispute that James B. Stewart's DisneyWar also explored. This book, however, focuses on Geffen's role brokering a settlement. Admiring the compromise fashioned at his beach house, he said: "'It's the perfect definition of a settlement...Both parties felt they didn't get what they wanted. Disney paid more than it wanted, and Jeffrey got less than he wanted.'" (p. 586.)

I enjoyed the following exchange, revealing much within a few words:

"'Geffen railed at [Edgar] Bronfman [then of Universal Studios] for balking. 'I have one job in the world now and that's to make him happy!' he ranted, pointing at Spielberg. 'And you're putting me in a position where I cannot make him happy!' Geffen, slipping into a familiar role, had begun acting as Spielberg's de facto agent.

"'David, stop screaming,' Sid Sheinberg [then of Universal] said calmly.

"'I'm not screaming!' Geffen yelled.

"'You're screaming, David,' Sheinberg said.

"Finally, Steven Spielberg piped up. 'David, you know what would make me happy?' he asked.

"'What?' Geffen asked angrily.

"'Stop screaming,' Spielberg said." (p. 546.)

The Unexpected

I didn't expect to get a primer in leadership. Without a college degree and with an undistinguished high school academic record, Geffen had at least three basic skills or abilities that repeatedly paid enormous dividends for him as a business leader.

First, Geffen has uncanny vision. King writes about how Geffen can see the "endgame" when others cannot. A fellow executive at Geffen Records described Geffen as "truly an artist, a visionary who creates magic and who sees his dream as an ever-evolving path." (p. 541.) This description elucidates Geffen's vision as moving and malleable. In other words, he has the ability to recast and recreate on the fly, rather than being slavishly wedded to a plan that might not be working.

Geffen himself placed this visionary talent into a divine context, however. "'I realize[ ] that the future is just an illusion....You talk about your plans, but the fact of the matter is that you can only live right now, this very minute. I always think there's your plan, and there's God's plan, and your plan doesn't matter.'" (p. 536.)

Second, Geffen's a masterful motivator because he understands people. He has the ability to see inside people and move them to his vision. Geffen's "'incessant questioning and prodding... has often brought us to a place we never saw or knew existed," reported one executive who worked with Geffen.

Third, Geffen's self-motivated. His passion bleeds into everything he does.

When he was building Geffen Records, or otherwise, he didn't (and doesn't) do things half-heartedly. At some point, the money fails as a motivator. According to Geffen, "I can tell you that the money certainly doesn't make it worthwhile. Certainly I will never have played with, looked at, touched, or felt nine-nine percent of it. It's just numbers on a financial statement." (p. 542.)

Conversely, Geffen's finds motivation elsewhere. "[T]here's another part of me that is full of joy about being at the edge of potential failure again." (541; emphasis supplied.) As a leader, Geffen didn't fear failure, but he recognized and even revealed in the potential of failure--and necessarily its flipside, success. In this regard, Geffen elsewhere said: "I'm very optimistic about what people can do who have the courage to try, and the willingness to fail. Because without failure, there is no success." (p. 536.)