John Maxwell on Leadership

To Expand Your Influence, Elevate Your Capacity to Think

In 1978, unemployed sportscaster Bill Rasmussen hatched an idea to launch the world’s first around-the-clock television station and to devote its programming entirely to sports. Roughly a year later, the Entertainment and Sports Network (ESPN) made its initial broadcast, and in just a few years the station rapidly transformed the way Americans watch athletics. Whereas the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) of the time televised only a few main events on the weekends, ESPN offered nonstop, 24/7 sports coverage. Sports enthusiasts flocked to ESPN in droves, and the station steadily expanded into the global media empire it is today.

Growth always increases your capacity—that’s the Law of Expansion. The explosive growth of a business happens only because a leader has greatly expanded his or her capacity to think. Such was the case with Bill Rasmussen, founder of ESPN. How exactly did he broaden the scope of his thought?

(1) He stopped thinking more work, and he started thinking what works?

In the spring of 1978, Rasmussen was fired from his job as communications director for the New England Whalers hockey team. Instead of immediately plunging into a job search to find more work, he paused to consider the possibilities in sports broadcasting. Where did the opportunities lie? How could sports coverage improve?

From a prior stint as a local sports anchor, Rasmussen knew firsthand the frustration of sports fans whose favorite team did not make the three-minute spot on the evening news. Each night after his sports segment ended, Rasmussen was flooded with calls from disgruntled viewers upset that their team’s game had not been highlighted. Clearly, there existed a diverse market of sports enthusiasts desiring more media coverage than was presently available. Rasmussen was convinced that a television network offering a wider array of sports, and devoting more time to them, would have no problem attracting an audience.

(2) He stopped thinking can I? Instead, he started thinking how can I?

Rasmussen did not allow self-doubt to extinguish his idea of expanding the current offering of sports on television. He knew his vision could happen; he only needed to figure out how to make it a reality. He shared the vision with friends and then pitched it to local cable TV owners. Someone advised him to consider satellite television as a means of reaching a national audience. At the time, satellite-to-cable television was in its infancy, but Rasmussen took the suggestion to heart and phoned RCA, then the leading satellite communications provider. RCA had launched its satellite in 1975, but given the technology’s novelty, only 2/3 of its transponders (channels) had been purchased. Sensing the vast potential of broadcasting via satellite, Rasmussen quickly secured financing to buy a package that would enable his startup network to broadcast 24/7.

3) He stopped thinking one door or one way, and he started thinking many doors, many ways.

Conventional wisdom at the time was that television stations made their money primarily through subscriptions. However, in 1978 only 1 in 5 households had access to cable programming. For ESPN to take flight, Rasmussen needed to develop additional revenue streams. Accordingly, he birthed the idea of financing the network’s operations by selling advertising space. Before ESPN even went on the air, Rasmussen had convinced Anheuser-Busch to buy a $1.38 million ad package. As ESPN began to establish itself, other businesses followed suit, paying to promote their products to the network’s growing audience.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for leaders in the Information Age is that of expanding their minds. When you open up your thinking, it’s as if you’re crossing into a great wilderness. You must be willing to blaze the trail into unchartered territory, to face the unknown, and to conquer your fears and doubts. The reward is that if you can upgrade your thinking, you can improve your life. As Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” If you desire to expand your influence, start by elevating your capacity to think.


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