Get Out & Give Back: Ted Leonsis’ Business of Happiness

Ted Leonsis knows how to be happy.  The owner of the Washington Capitals, Washington Mystics, vice chairman emeritus of America on Line and uber-successful businessman has studied, researched and analyzed happy people and businesses for 26 years. Now he wants you to be happy too.

By Jane Hess Collins

Ted and Lynn Leonsis at the 2008 Best Buddies event. (Photo by Kyle Samperton)

Ted and Lynn Leonsis at the 2008 Best Buddies event. (Photo by Kyle Samperton)

In his new book, The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Life and Work, Leonsis’ ultimate measures for happiness in business and life are to leave more than he took and to be loved, not needed.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste

Leonsis’ happiness quest started with a “reckoning” in 1984 when he survived a near plane crash. As the plane circled over Atlanta and the flight attendants prepared the passengers for an emergency landing, Leonsis realized that although he was already a millionaire many times over at age 28, he wasn’t happy. He decided that if he survived the crash he would restructure his life to live happily and without regret.

The plane didn’t crash. Leonsis survived. He wrote a “life list” of 101 goals that would make him happy and methodically set out to accomplish them. His journey toward happiness had begun.

One Secret – Give Back

Leonsis’ life list of goals is categorized into seven parts, and are listed, checked and unchecked, in Appendix A of his book. Five of his six “Charities” goals are already checked, including “Change someone’s life via a charity” and “Start a family charity foundation.” Only goal 38, “Give away one hundred million dollars in lifetime” remains unchecked, and Leonsis is closing in on that one too.

Leonsis gives back because it makes him happy, it centers him, and because it’s an investment in society. He factors his “double bottom line” requirement, or doing well by doing good, into each of his business and charitable decisions. Not content with writing a check, he sees himself as an “activist philanthropist” who involves himself in the charities he supports. Some funders, he says, “are not connected at all to what the charity is doing, the people that it’s helping and the stories of the people that it’s helping.” Leonsis, by contrast, has had daily or weekly contact with at-risk high school students, the homeless and the intellectually challenged that he’s met through the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, Best Buddies, and other charities he’s supported. That personal contact, he says, allows him to stay involved with the charities’ management.

Director Susan Koch, Producer Ted Leonsis, and Cinematographer Neil Barrett at a screening for their documentary film "Kicking It." (Photo by Tony Powell)

Director Susan Koch, Producer Ted Leonsis, and Cinematographer Neil Barrett at a screening for their documentary film “Kicking It.” (Photo by Tony Powell)

Lights, Camera, Give!

Goal 88, Win a Grammy/Oscar/Tony/Emmy Award, was Leonsis’ most ambitious goal. When he chose Nanking as his first film project, he had no idea it would lead to “filmanthropy.”

Nanking was based on the horrors of the Japanese invasion of China in World War II. It was also the genesis of filmanthropy, Leonsis’ idea to move people to action by making films that either righted a wrong or highlighted an injustice. Filmanthropy, Leonsis says, was a “higher calling” (another secret!) borne of his initial incentive to make films as a means to put a check next to the Goal 88 box. That higher calling moved up a notch with snagfilms.com, a site Leonsis created to distribute documentary films and literally build giving into the pixels. Viewers can download, for free, nearly 1,000 films. Each film is embedded with a widget that allows viewers to “snag” them to another webpage, blog, Facebook or MySpace page, thus sharing the films and social message. Currently there are 60,000 of these virtual theaters, allowing everyone to become a filmanthropist. Finally, each film links to a charity for viewers to click a donation. Snagfilms.com streams millions of minutes of free films each month.

Leonsis won an Emmy, his second, for Nanking in last year.

Double bottom line? Check.

Grace Guggenheim and Ted Leonsis at the 2008 SilverDocs Film Festival Host Committee Dinner

Grace Guggenheim and Ted Leonsis at the 2008 SilverDocs Film Festival Host Committee Dinner

In our own back yard

Although his giving is global, Leonsis is most concerned with the need in Washington, DC. “Washington, DC has to be the shining city on the hill,” he said. Despite the city being one of the most powerful and wealthy in the world, Leonsis points out that “we don’t have to look very far for good and worthy causes to help make our city the great example for the rest of the world.” He encourages Washingtonians to get hands-on involved in local charities “to help this city live its life without regret.”

Just like he does.

The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Life and Work is available on Amazon.com and area bookstores. All proceeds will be donated to the DC Central Kitchen, the Arlington Food Assistance Center and other charities.

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2 Responses

  1. James Samuel Cyrus Black says:

    Thank you very much for your great work and for passing it on to others. Vaya con Dios!

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