Michael Hyatt: A Conversation About Leadership and the Future of Publishing

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Michael Hyatt is a New York Times best-selling author and leadership expert. He is also board chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the largest Christian publishing company in the world. Hyatt left his position as CEO of Thomas Nelson earlier this year to focus on writing and speaking, and the company is now in negotiations to be purchased by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of media giant News Corp. Hyatt told The High Calling his only involvement with the current sale is in the capacity of board oversight, but a few years ago, he guided Thomas Nelson through the transition from being a publicly traded company to one that is privately held. We spoke to Hyatt about the future of publishing in the digital age and about what it takes to be a good leader. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Part One: The Future of Publishing

The High Calling: As former CEO and current board chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, you have been very engaged in the move toward the digital publishing. Do you think the move is a good thing, a bad thing, or just inevitable?

Michael Hyatt: I think it’s a very good thing because it’s going to make books more broadly accessible. You don’t have to have a retail store nearby to get a book. You can literally buy a book in an instant from anywhere in the world.

I also think it’s as easy to read on an e-book reader as it is to read a printed book. Some people swear they don’t like reading on an e-book reader. They say they love the smell of the paper and the binding and all of that, but I liken that perspective to the turn of the last century when people said, “I don’t think that motorcar thing will catch on. I really just like the clip-clop of the horse’s hoof on the pavement.” It is inevitable because it creates less friction. It’s easier for consumers, for publishers, for everybody in the transaction. Because I travel so much, I see people everywhere, especially on airplanes, reading on their Kindles or their iPads.

Ten or fifteen years ago, journalists were lamenting the consolidation of major media companies because some feared it would result in more homogenized media output. Now, even though it’s easy to self-publish, it’s tough to get a book deal with a major publishing house unless a writer has an established “platform.” What are you thoughts on this dilemma?

I think that this is the best time ever to be an author because writers have incomparable access to readers today. It’s not easy, but they don’t have to wait to be chosen by a publishing company. I’ve got a new book coming out from Thomas Nelson, so I myself am going the traditional route, but self-publishing is a very real option. Developing a manuscript on a blog or building momentum on a blog is an option. There have never been more books published and more reading material available than now. The challenge of course is that there’s so much noise in the marketplace, how do you get noticed?

Heaven Is for Real is a great example of an ordinary person breaking through. The book has broken all of Thomas Nelson’s previous sales records. Why does it resonate with people?

I think it’s mainly that people want affirmation that there’s something beyond this life of struggle and sadness, and all the rest. There’s got to be something more. The book, in a deeply compelling way, because it’s coming out of the mouth of a child, resonates with people and gives them hope. has reportedly said it has agreements with publishers to include their titles in its new lending library. Some publishers deny that these agreements exist, but don’t want to take legal action against Amazon. What are your thoughts on the controversy?

The lending library is helpful to the extent that it sells books, and people can sample them, but my fear is that it becomes a replacement for people actually buying the books. I don’t think it’s as big a threat in non-fiction books, which is predominantly what Thomas Nelson publishes, as it is for fiction, where people are less likely to buy the book and go back and reread it. It is a challenge to take on Amazon because they are quickly becoming every publisher’s number one customer. It puts publishers in an awkward position.

What do you think about the Kindle Fire?

I’m pretty excited about it. At $200, the Kindle Fire puts tablet computers within reach of ordinary consumers. Obviously the iPad has been enormously successful, but it’s still a little bit pricey. Amazon is releasing applications like Netflix, Pandora, and other services with it. I assume it’s going to be a serious threat to the iPad.

Are Thomas Nelson e-books available for the Kindle Fire?

Yes. Eighty-five percent of Thomas Nelson’s catalog is digitized, and there are thousands of e-books available from Thomas Nelson. There are millions available from all publishers. The good thing about the Amazon Kindle is that those books can be read on any device. I can read my Amazon Kindle collection on my iPad, on my Kindle Fire, on my Mac computer, on my iPhone, anywhere really.

Is that because of its design or because of its licensing?

The software makes it accessible anywhere. Essentially, when you buy the book, you’re buying a license to that particular book for whatever device you may want to read it on.

How did you become passionate about social media?

A friend of mine challenged me to get on Twitter and I, like everybody else, initially thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever seen. But I did something kind of by accident that turned out to be pretty smart. I got the people I care about on Twitter with me, like my family and my close friends. It was supplemental to our relationships; it wasn’t in place of our relationships.

I think the reason social media is working is because God has built within the universe this relational component. People are desperate for connection, desperate for relationship. Unfortunately, some people think if they have a social media connection, they’ve got that, and I think it can lead to that, but it will never be a replacement for face to face connection.

Social media creates an illusion of familiarity. How do well-known people like you create boundaries?

You definitely have to have boundaries of what you will do and won’t do. I get requests all the time for people who want to meet for coffee. I respond by saying, “In order to keep my other commitments, unfortunately I have to decline this.” And that’s true. If I said yes to all those people, I’d have to say no to my family and people that are really important to me. I don’t think these problems are any different than people have always had with fame. It’s just that people can approach you directly now.

You recently un-followed nearly everyone you were following on Twitter. Did you do that to manage the noise?

Yes. I was getting too much direct message spam on my Twitter account. Now people can reply to me. They can mention me and I’ll see that because I have a column in HootSuite of all my mentions. I see that and try to respond as I’m able.

Part 2: Leadership

There’s been some criticism of famous pastors for leaving their churches to go on the speaker circuit. Rightly or wrongly, people assume there’s a lot of ego involved with a decision like that. You’re not a pastor, but you left a leadership position to focus on speaking and writing about leadership. Why did you do that and have you received any criticism for your decision?

I haven’t received any criticism. That’s actually a brand new thought. Some people have too much time on their hands to just criticize people like that, because I think it’s between those pastors and God. It’s a matter of calling. It’s just a different kind of ministry they were in, but I don’t think it’s any less legitimate.

For myself, I’ve always known that I have communication ability, and as I began to see my blog take off, God confirmed in my own heart that this was my sweet spot, this is what I need to be doing more of. I got into publishing because I saw the power of books to change lives, and as I moved up through the corporate ranks, I was actually doing less and less of that. It’s more about managing the board, investor relations, and working with banks and finance. These are all things that I could do, but I didn’t really get any energy out of doing them. I didn’t feel like I was operating in my sweet spot. There are a lot of guys who can do that and do it well. The thing that I feel like I’m particularly gifted for is doing what I’m doing now. By the way, it is hard. Traveling is tough. I’ve been on the road eight days and I leave tomorrow morning. Fortunately my wife goes with me and that helps a lot.

Why will Thomas Nelson's new CEO, Mark Schoenwald, be a good leader?

Mark is a fantastic leader. For starters, he is humble and a great listener. He gets all the facts before he comments or takes action. Second, he knows what he doesn’t know. His background is not publishing, so he relies on those who have the experience. He is very good at team-building. Third, he is very decisive and action-oriented. He may not always make the right decision (I didn’t either), but he keeps the organization moving forward. Finally, he is a committed Christian and dedicated to the mission of Thomas Nelson, which is to inspire the world. It’s also a plus that he has a super-supportive wife and three beautiful children.

How did leadership become a passion for you?

When you’re leading a big company, it’s inevitable that you’ve got to develop some leadership capabilities if you’re going to be effective. Whatever else publishing is about, in any organization, it boils down to leadership. Can you lead your team to accomplish specific outcomes, as directed by the board and others? I had to study and learn how to lead long before I was in that position. Also, my friendship with John Maxwell has really been helpful.

You recently published an article on your blog about feelings of inadequacy when you were vice president of marketing for Thomas Nelson in your late 20s. What helped you move from that place of insecurity to being able to go out and share leadership skills with others?

Failure was helpful. Seriously, you stumble through it, you make mistakes, you learn from it, and you move forward. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back. I think reading was helpful, availing myself of training when I could. Also, I’ve employed coaches for quite a while, people that were better than I am at certain things and who could coach me.

It takes courage to persevere after failure. How does a person develop that kind of courage?

You’ve got a choice after you fail. You can either quit or you can get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving. The thing about failure is it’s never final. You can quit, but failure won’t take you out by itself. Usually the greatest people who have lived and made an impact have been people who have failed repeatedly. I’ve read a lot of biographies. I know that to be the case. So that inspires me in those times, and I think, “What’s the alternative? I just can’t sit here and lick my wounds. I’ve got to get up.” Of course when you are in leadership, people are counting on you to make the right call and to get up and lead. I believe strongly that you’ve got to lead yourself. That’s the first business of leadership.

You are the father of five daughters. How did living for so many years in a house full of women and girls shape you and your leadership?

I think it’s made me a better listener, which is essential for effective leadership. Too many leaders think they have to have all the answers when what they really have to do is ask good questions. As my daughters were growing up, they didn’t so much want to hear from dad, the CEO or the senior vice president or whatever; they wanted somebody to listen to them empathetically and understand the problem before I tried to address it. That’s a major thing. Living with women and girls has also given me a lot of sensitivity and emotional intelligence, which also serves leaders well.

Much has been written about Steve Jobs since his death in October. Do you have any thoughts on his leadership style?

From a business perspective, he was probably one of the most effective leaders in history. He accomplished enormous things, reshaping one industry after another. But, it came at some cost. I’m about halfway through Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography now and it’s pretty amazing. His life was a contradiction because while he stood for great products and an unrelenting pursuit of excellence, he also consciously put his family second, and I think he probably regretted that.

I’ve read that Jobs could be a tyrannical leader. Can a leader pursue excellence, honor people’s humanity, and not neglect their family?

You have set those outcomes. They’ve got to be part of your priority system. I definitely think it’s possible. You don’t have to be a jerk to be successful in business. The most powerful way to lead people is not to coerce them or push them, but to pull them and inspire them, and to help them commit to something that’s greater than all of us. With that kind of transcendent value and that kind of objective, people will bring forth part of them that a leader would never get by trying to coerce it. Fear is one kind of motivation; inspiration is another kind.

Are both fear and encouragement necessary in some situations, or is it possible to always be positive?

I don’t see anything good coming out of fear. I think people bring fear to every job and every situation already. It comes prepackaged. That’s why I shared that story on my blog about being fearful as a young professional, because I know every leader I’ve ever spoken to feels the same way. When I stand in a group of leaders and talk about sleepless nights I’ve had because I was worried about whether I was going to lose my job or if we were going to have to lay off more people, or whatever it was, everybody resonates with that because everyone has been there. Few people I’ve ever met really feel adequate. They always feel like they’re in over their heads or that the job requires more of them than they’re able to give. That’s part of what makes us grow, so that’s not a bad thing. It just is.