Success and Fun: the Bradlee Effect

Ben Bradlee's left a legacy of fun at the Washington Post

— -- Reflecting on the life and death of Ben Bradlee, the beloved former editor of the Washington Post, caused me to again see the immense power of fun.

I only met Bradlee a couple of times in social settings, but you could feel his exuberance right off. And as I have read the many complimentary accounts of former colleagues and employees in recent days, the big thing that comes through nearly universally is that when he headed the Washington Post everyone said it was a fun place to work and be a part of. Circulation at the Post doubled in size while Bradlee was there, and though other circumstances aligned positively like big stories (Pentagon Papers and Watergate), the fun happening from top down was a major contributor of success.

In the past I have often described this as the Southwest Airlines effect. Southwest has been one of the most successful airlines in the world and it is described by most as one of the funnest places to work. You can tell their employees enjoy their work, are given creative space, and are allowed to have fun along the way. You can just feel it on most Southwest flights, and you can feel the opposite of it on some other airlines.

In 2004, I would routinely brief journalists on the status of the Bush re-election campaign (I was the chief strategist) by pointing out polls, statistics and the political environment in the country that I judged would cause us to win in a close race with John Kerry. At one briefing with two reporters who were about to go to a similar discussion at the Kerry campaign, I stopped. Realizing they were likely to hear numbers and such that would point to a Kerry victory, I said, "Here is an idea. Ignore both our numbers, and just walk around our campaign, and then walk around their campaign, and whomever is having the most fun is likely going to win." A few days later, the reporters came back and said, "Well according to your theory, Bush is going to win. You all are having more fun."

I think the same is true in personal relationships. What determines success in those intimate circles? Yes, communication is important. And a shared sense of values and shared goals is key. But bet on the relationships where the couple is having fun. Really authentic fun, and not merely just pleasure seeking or satisfying. Where laughter is genuine, where joy is readily apparent, and where it feels like a playground of interaction engaged in fun of mind, body and soul.

I know journalism, flying airplanes (or any business endeavor), presidential campaigns, and relationships are serious business. But we have to be able to do serious things without taking ourselves too seriously. The world can be a heavy place, so why not try to add some lightness to our life whether in our professions or our partnerships? Doing serious things in a fun way might be a paradox, but it is the path to succeeding.

If we watch children, we are drawn to their spontaneous play, their exuberance, their sense of awe, their abandon, and their fun. We can each be more childlike without becoming childish. My 12-year-old daughter who spent nearly a year in the hospital, had numerous surgeries, and lost her identical twin sister early on, has shown me the power of living life with fun and abandon through pain and problems. God bless her.

So as we look forward, and seeing the effect Bradlee had on a business and those around him, look for the endeavors having the most fun and throwing positive energy out without limit. And if you are wondering who is going to be the next president, or which companies are going to succeed, or whether a relationship is working, don't bet on black. Bet on the light, and fund the fun.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent.