in the case of oprah: the epicenter of influence
We’ve spent the past month talking about thought leadership and who better to study as the epitome of thought leadership than Oprah Winfrey. A few weeks ago, you may have seen her Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. She was the first black woman to ever receive the award, but that just adds another layer onto her story. She spoke to the times in which we live and hashtag metoo, demanding that everyone talk about the Subject at Hand so we can flip the script. She was poignant, relevant, and reserved and spoke actual words with actual meaning to the people in the room and beyond. Her ability to do just that, time after time, is because of her firm identification of, and with, her brand, her mission and her values. As a thought leader, as a professional, and as a person, Oprah is who she is due to a trifecta of sorts:
1. Near-perfect definition and acceptance of her personal brand
2. Adaptivity to changing times, roles, business ventures, and messaging
3. Personal connection with the followers of her thought leadership
This is not to acknowledge or summate without pausing to appreciate the sheer amount of talent and work that has gone into creating the O brand we all know. It’s staggering to think some people get up every day of their lives and go on to build something that is so bowled-over, wow-that-is-huge, will-you-take-a-look-at-that enormous. And she’s just so cool about it!
When deciding who to profile for this case study, we wanted to feature someone who has transcended time and medium. Oprah has done just that. If you weren’t a fan before, you can at least stand back and appreciate the scope, magnitude, and impact of what she’s done over the last forty plus years.
When you put it into that kind of perspective, the improbability and the shear Everest-esque nature of her accomplishments should provide motivation and direction to the up-and-comings of this generation and beyond.
We’re outlining the blog in four sections:
So let’s get after it.
Born into the kind of poverty almost unique (and certainly all too common) to rural Mississippi, she was dealt a pretty unfortunate hand – hers a single, teenage mother, Oprah was molested throughout her childhood and pregnant by age 14, only to have her son die in infancy. You can imagine the kind of environment that would take her given name, “Orpah”, and with consistent mispronunciation, ultimately change her name to Oprah. She reports wearing dresses made of potato sacks, a wardrobe few can relate to. Winfrey had three siblings – one who died of cocaine addiction complications, one who died of AIDS, and one who was given up for adoption due to her mother’s perpetually destitute financial situation. These are differentiators you would absolutely never choose and which make for an improbable incubator for the realization of the American dream.
Despite odds heavily stacked against her ever “making it,” she secured a job at a local radio station while living in Tennessee and was co-anchoring the evening news by age 19. Her delivery style was what initially differentiated her in a world dominated by white males to which she was nigh unto the antithesis. She is credited with having revolutionized traditional mass media, and according to a Yale study, she shattered previously held prejudices and paved the way for those of the LGBT community to join the chorus of voices in mainstream media. When listing her accomplishments, it is reminiscent of the length and repetitive nature of biblical genealogies. However, nearly every one is a huge honor and she only has approximately 1783 of them. She has been irrefutably successful at what she’s set out to do.
Born in the 1954 and emerging onto the television screen in Nashville before 1976, Oprah has lived professionally through a mass change in the way people consume content, and her continued popularity is testament to her attention to this shift. Over the past four decades, Oprah has withstood the test of the changing times – rising to every occasion with current content and captivating her following over and over again. This is perhaps the most important aspect of maintaining a presence as a thought leader. While she has always maintained her home media base on television, she has written books and published O magazine, established a satellite radio channel bearing her name, and of course, there’s always Oprah.com.
Hers was the fourth most watched television event in American history in 1993 with her prime-time interview of Michael Jackson. She produced and starred in the film The Color Purple and when she appeared on David Letterman to discuss the movie, it was considered by many to be the television event of the decade. Wherever she goes, people follow along. The point of this entire case study is to inspire and to springboard questions like “How can I?” and “What will I do?” when it comes to thought leadership. It takes a myriad of shapes and styles, but the magnitude of Oprah’s success is something everyone, particularly in any realm of media, can look to for a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark kind of hit.
One estimate has said that her endorsement and support of Obama from 2006 to 2008 yielded over a million votes in his favor. She’s commonly considered the “Queen of All Media” and is regaled as the most influential woman in history. Not that that’s a big deal or anything. Actually, we can’t go on without thinking a little more about that. The most influential? Woman in history? Two huge statements about the life and impact of one person, who’s still a very singular individual with no claims of deity or purported prophesying. Whether or not you’re a fan, it’s impossible to deny the breadth and depth of her influence and impact. Certainly her story has impacted her delivery, style, and interest, as well as her perspective on life, people, and the power she wields. Certainly her continued success has generated further success, but the control she has maintained in steering her ship through previously uncharted waters has been enormously impactful. From her cultural influence through film and TV to her philanthropy, from her political activism to her personal brand and consistency with it, she stands alone in that place where your identity, personal brand, and self have collided and risen up, within your time, to the status of a living legend.
This has happened to Oprah.