Life’s Work: An Interview with Ken Burns by Daniel McGinn

Here’s a brief interview by Daniel McGinn of Ken Burns from the HBR‘s Life’s Work series.

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Ken Burns uses his distinctive style of documentary filmmaking to take viewers into the lives of presidents, explorers, athletes, and musicians. An amateur historian at heart, Burns has for 34 years helped millions connect with America’s past through his Emmy Award–winning work. His landmark series The Civil War will be rebroadcast on PBS in September.

Why should business leaders study history?

In the late 1970s a top executive at a large telecommunications company lamented to me that business schools were producing MBA graduates who had no knowledge of the humanities. He worried that they were a bunch of automatons. He said, “I can teach these people business skills, but I can’t teach them ethics, history, or art.” Business leaders ought to study history. You can’t possibly know where you are or where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

In this age of waning attention spans, do you feel pressure to make your films shorter?

When The Civil War came out, in 1990, MTV had popularized a style of fast-paced video, with lots of cuts and action. Critics said no one would watch my film, but it got huge ratings. When The War came out, in 2007, there were no longer just 15 channels but 515, and critics were certain no one would watch it. They were wrong. And in 2014 The Roosevelts drew more viewers than Downton Abbey. There’s a deluge of information in the world, but very little understanding of it. We all know what it’s like to browse the Huffington Post and not remember any of it 20 minutes later. Sustained attention is what makes companies work well and art work well, and it’s what all human beings crave no matter how distracted they are. Meaning accrues in duration.

Has your view of leadership changed over the years?

It has remained fairly constant. I find it delightful that “leadership” comes in so many varieties and from such different experiences. Look at Abraham Lincoln, who was born into poverty on the frontier, and Franklin Roosevelt, who was born to such great privilege that he could have spent his life in idleness.

Could the great leaders you’ve featured succeed in modern politics?

No. We choose leaders abysmally today. We expect perfection, and when we don’t find it we lament the absence of heroes. But heroism, by the very definition that came down from the Greeks, is a negotiation between strengths and weaknesses. Maybe I’m being glib when I say that people like the Roosevelts and Lincoln couldn’t make it past the Iowa caucuses, but it would be very difficult for them to succeed in this environment.

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Daniel McGinn is an executive editor at HBR, and the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed (Portfolio, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @danmcginn.

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