If you had asked me, three years ago at the tender age of 19, if I though of myself as a ‘leader’ I would have looked off somewhere to the left of your face, and adopted a thoughtful (or perhaps vacant) expression. “I can lead,” I would have said, “but I prefer not to.”
This answer would have been supported by two basic (yet fundamental) aspects of my personality: a pervasive, casual arrogance and a paranoid avoidance of failure. I didn’t necessarily have trouble being the center of attention, being the focus of criticism, or bearing the pressure of the project. I did have trouble living up to my own internal expectations of perfection. Good is not as good as better, and therefore it is an embarrassing admission of weakness. I could not lead because I could not admit to myself that I might fail; I was the greatest enemy of my own aspiration.
Yet a year later I stumbled into the position of Editor-In-Chief of a university newspaper, and was forced to ponder the veracity both of my assertion that I was capable of leadership, and my assertion that I preferred not to demonstrate that capability. For a year and a half I struggled and bled for that university paper, and I emerged from the position a very different individual than I had been going in. At some levels I consider that year and a half to be my transition from boy to man. I learned to accept responsibility, I learned to see the bigger picture, and to sacrifice my personal frustration for the good of the paper. I learned to negotiate and work with individuals with vastly different ethics, worldviews and history than my own.
I learned, through a long and occasionally messy process, to embody some sense of what my mentor might call a ‘servant leadership model’. I learned to bite my lip when I was mocked for being Christian, to share in fellowship with individuals who I otherwise would have had nothing in common with, and to work side by side with some of the more eccentric personalities universities have ever produced. I learned, in other words, to lead as effectively as I was able (at that stage of my development).
I have since passed the reigns to a much-respected colleague, and taken an editorial position lower in the hierarchy. I originally wondered if I should simply step away from the paper altogether, since relinquishing leadership often requires a complete break from an organization. But at heart I loved the paper, and so I stayed
I still think that was a good decision, but the fact that I stayed has taught me almost as much about leadership as I originally learned leading. It has taught me exactly what my strengths are, as well as weakness I didn’t realize I had.
First and foremost, it has taught me that I’m not really a modern journalist. I do not appreciate details the way I perhaps could, and I don’t care to spend hours a day studying current events, politics, and various news aggregates. I take a surprisingly focused approach to journalism and therefore people are often surprised by how little I know about topics that should be integral to my profession. This is a glaring weakness, and because of it my successor makes a far better professional EIC than I ever was. I am at peace with this.
On the other hand, I have strengths in other areas that I didn’t fully appreciate while running the paper. For example, I do a much better job connecting with potential sources and forming relationships than many of my colleagues because I come across as far more sympathetic to the average individual who is not a journalist. I can meet someone on their level, befriend them, and engage in a relaxed discussion with much greater success than many of my colleagues, which means that even half a year after relinquishing the top position, I still have a better web of contacts within the university than many of my coworkers. Two things stand out about myself:
Journalism is about building bridges, not burning them. Not matter what you discover about a person’s understanding or efficiency personally or professionally, you (as a journalist) must remain a sympathetic figure. People will disclose information to fellow humans they would never disclose to journalists, and sometimes even journalists discover that their ‘astute’ analysis of the broken inner workings of some organization is not in fact correct. There are few things worse than writing off a potential contact as a ‘bureaucratic idiot’ (and implying that fact over a social media platform such as Twitter), before realizing that they are an entirely innocent party.
Student journalists are often seduced by a sense of intangible superiority, as if they are the intellectual police of academia. Because of this, they are bewilderingly free in sharing their opinions of others in comments that inevitably are reported back to the concerned party.
It’s not your responsibility, as a journalist, to keep everybody happy. But it is your responsibility to keep your ego under control and keep on speaking terms with the contacts who are necessary to doing your job. Perhaps because of my awareness of my own faults, I do a pretty good job of this.
2. I understand that leadership is about the team.
I’ve worked with difficult employees in the past and I’m sure I will again. I probably am a difficult employee considering my personality, and I won’t try to hide that. But what I have learned, again and again, is that if you can’t respect and be respected on some level by the entirety of your staff, you have no business attempting to lead an organization.
A large part of this is simply being successful at what you do, being efficient with the resources given, and listening to the wisdom of those you are attempting to lead. But a deep and inalienable part of respecting and beings respected is being a bastion of support for the qualities you are trying to ingrain into your organization.
I’ve walked into the office several times this year only to overhear conversations in which my superiors criticize a fellow student at length (sometimes ad nauseum), often for things as simple as personality, Twitter posts, or entries on their personal blog. For the most part these are empathetic intelligent coworkers, and (for the most part) the individuals they are criticizing ‘deserve’ it. Sometimes the conversation has lasted minutes, sometimes it’s been extended as the conversants warm to the topic.
But each time I wince, not because I’m wholly innocent of such talk, but because of the precedent it sets for the paper staff.
As a leader, what you model will almost inevitably become part of the character of the organization you lead. If you signal that criticism of absent parties is acceptable, your employees will follow your example. If you signal that personal criticism (not work-related) is acceptable in the office, your employees will follow your example. Each of your actions sets a precedent, and a leader must be aware of that fact or he or she will quickly lose control and the ‘bastion’ will crumble.
Criticism of fellow students outside the paper can quickly lead to criticism of students within the paper, which leads to factionalism, rivalries, and even professional sabotage. When I became Editor-In-Chief of the paper two years ago these things were rampant, now, two years later, I am realizing how rational individuals can find themselves on the slippery slope to these extremes. As a leader, it is your duty to prevent your organization from fracturing, you cannot model any behaviors which communicate that factionalism is acceptable.
I once played on a basketball team that was never really successful. This was partially because we weren’t very good, and partially because our team dynamic was profoundly negative. I remember entering the change room after practice, and knowing that we were going to make fun of whatever team member had missed practice or simply wasn’t bothering to change. We’d talk about their clothes, their mannerisms, their girlfriend, anything we could think of that would draw a laugh.
For a moment it gave all of us confidence, a group dynamic, but individually we knew that after the next practice we missed, the conversation would be about us.
This is the profound truth about belittlement: it is a survival response from a persona terrified by the possibility of being belittled. It is a rejection of community, of team, for the temporary security of cheap superiority.
The person who complains the loudest about the fat/lazy/stupid/old student ‘disrupting’ their class is the individual most paranoid about being that person to another, more sophisticated, classmate. The person who complains the loudest about their coworkers is the one most likely to be the cause of the relational problem they proclaim. The leader who rips into his or her own team is the one least able to lead for the simple reason that he or she can only destruct rather than construct.
I am not a true journalist, but I am very good at creating team. My successor is an amazing journalist and someone who helps me keep my ego in check, but he is not as vigorous in cracking down on personal attacks in the workplace. I didn’t realize how important this role was until I was no longer in a position to embody it.
I love the paper I work for, but I will not be working for it much longer. I have learned most (I suspect) of what I am going to learn. The paper moves on, an ink river flowing towards new horizons, and the ideal I embodied is left in its abandoned course. All things must change, all leaders must choose their own bastions.
I’m not really a journalist, after all.