Leadership lessons from Vanna White: Are you this agile?

Leadership lessons from Vanna White: Are you this agile?

Vanna White has stepped in to host the show, going well beyond her day-to-day duties and comfort zone. It was completely unprecedented: Pat Sajak has never missed a taping in 40 years.

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When I tuned into “Wheel of Fortune” earlier this month, I saw something completely unexpected: Vanna White was hosting the show, filling in for her colleague and longtime host Pat Sajak, while he recovered from emergency surgery.

White has played a mostly silent role as the show’s letter turner since 1982. Viewers typically only hear from her during the show’s nightly sign off, when she and Pat engage in a few seconds of playful banter before the credits roll. Stepping in to host the show went well beyond her day-to-day duties, and it was completely unprecedented - Sajak has never missed a taping in 40 years.

I cheered White on from my living room, knowing this was a monumental moment for her. As she bravely took the reigns, I couldn’t help but think about the leadership lessons she and the entire and the Wheel of Fortune production team were displaying to keep one of America’s longest-running syndicated game shows on the air. Here are just a few lessons that come to mind.

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Teamwork: When you build a team that fosters friendship, loyalty, and collaboration, you can bet that they’ll go above and beyond to support each other and achieve goals. In this case, White and Sajak have worked together for nearly 40 years as the faces of this award-winning show. When executive producer Harry Friedman approached White about stepping in for Sajak, she didn’t hesitate after she got over the shock of the request.

When you build a team that fosters friendship, loyalty, and collaboration, you can bet that they’ll go above and beyond to support each other and achieve goals.

“My first thought was, ‘You’re kidding, right?'” White told the New York Post. “When I realized Harry was serious I thought, ‘You know what? The show must go on. I’m going to be a part of this and keep it going and will take Pat’s place until he comes back. He would probably do the same for me and I felt it was important for our fans to continue on with the show.”

In a recent interview with Good Morning America, Sajak underscored how impressed he was with White’s willingness to step into the hosting role.

"What a trooper. And I'm not being condescending in any way 'cause it would've been well within her rights to say, 'Wait a minute, this is not what you're payin' me for. This is not what I do. And I'd rather not,'" he said. "But she's a team player. And she was very nervous and not comfortable."

The show must go on

Minimum Viable Product: What would’ve happened if White didn’t fill in for Sajak? I’m guessing contestants had already flown in from around the country, disrupting both their (and their loved ones') personal schedules. Advertisers likely already had their holiday promos lined up for the 10.2 million people who tune into the show every week. Perhaps another temporary host could have been found – but that may have been a bigger turn off to longtime viewers who have come to love Sajak and White.

Instead of postponing the show while Sajak recovered, they followed the show business mantra: “The show must go on.” Producers did cancel filming on the day that Sajak announced he needed emergency surgery, out of concern for his well-being. The very next day, White began filming, logging only one practice run before the cameras rolled. The producers didn’t focus on perfection, instead they made sure the contestants and fans weren’t disappointed by closing the curtains until Sajak returned.

It was easy to see White was nervous during her hosting debut. She seemed to hold the cue cards tightly, studying them closely where Sajak would typically give them a cursory glance. She made almost no small talk with contestants, whereas Sajak is known for cheesy jokes and banter with the players. But the show went on, and after a few filmings she did better and better.

“It was very scary for me to step into that role, especially without any practice, but I did it,” she told the Post.

White even injected some personal flair and emotion that viewers don’t normally see from Sajak, including tearing up when one woman won the bonus round, displaying her pure joy for the contestant and her family.

If you want to see White in action as host, there’s another set of episodes she filmed, set to debut the week of Jan. 6. Even if you’re not a “Wheel of Fortune” fan, it may be worth turning in for a lesson on teamwork, agility, and confidence. I know I’ll be watching. 

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

As community manager for The Enterprisers Project, Ginny Hamilton helps build the site's community of CIOs, IT leaders, and readers. She is responsible for helping tell the stories of leading IT executives – showcasing the projects, experiences, and challenges they're facing in their roles as IT leaders.

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