I’m never going to be a leader, at least not the kind the “leadership books” teach you to be. And I’m finally OK with that.
When I was still in my “empire-builder” stage of my 20s, I read every business book I could find. I studied the ideas of popular writers such as Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and W. Edwards Deming. There were many more. The books often seemed profound as I read them, but I slowly realized something.
The concepts and management tips in the books turned out to be useless in the small companies I managed. No matter how brilliant the concepts seemed — and no matter how well they worked for the people in the small companies described — my employees looked at me blankly when I tried the ideas.
This left me confused about myself. Was I just a terrible leader? Was I doing something wrong? If so, why did people in organizations naturally turn to me when work needed to be done?
I’m thinking about this old topic because of something I randomly remembered this week which happened when I was in college.
I was mostly studying journalism and political science at the University of Alabama, but I took a class in television production one semester. I had no interest in doing any work in film or television at the time, but I thought it might be fun. Maybe even useful one day.
The instructor was a man who had worked in both film production and television production. We were learning studio production, so what we were doing was more like live television than making a film. Every student was assigned a particular role for a production and this rotated. I might be running a studio camera for one production, then operating the sound board next, then maybe manning the switcher. Everybody got at least one turn at each role — and every student had to write and direct his or her own production.
Most of the student productions were predictably awful. Even the people who had decent ideas had trouble converting those ideas into anything that looked decent on screen. They had trouble giving orders — via headset — to the students who were operating the other dozen or so technical positions.
Most people simply couldn’t keep their minds clear enough about all that had to happen — and which orders to give to which operators at different times — so there tended to be horrible gaps or switching errors. The instructor tried to hide his frustration, but it was obvious as the weeks went on.
It was finally my turn to direct the piece I’d written. It was a satire about someone being fired as a television news anchor. I held a pre-production meeting with my cast and crew, then we started the live-on-tape performance. I firmly gave orders from the control room to the camera operators, actors, technical director and the people in the other technical roles.
The production wasn’t flawless, but it was very acceptable for something that hadn’t been rehearsed and which used students who barely knew what they were doing. As I went through my preparation and production, the instructor didn’t say a word. He just stood to the back of the room and left us alone.
After we were finished and I had called “clear,” everybody started moving to pack up equipment and then collect personal items and leave the studio. I was gathering my things, too, when the instructor called me over to the side of the room while everybody else was talking and getting ready to leave. He had a serious look on his face, so I wondered if I had done something wrong.
“You’re a natural director,” he said quietly, as though he didn’t want other students to hear what he was saying. “You understood exactly what that needed to look like and sound like, and you knew how to bring it all together. You knew how to give the commands to everybody else to do what you saw in your mind. They followed your commands quickly and easily. That’s a gift. I can teach people to operate any equipment, but I can’t teach what you intuitively knew how to do. Don’t forget that.”
My ego swelled, of course. I felt sky high. I felt special. But since I had no interest in film or television at the time, I didn’t think that much about it. Even now, though, I can still see the earnest look on his face as he praised something he saw in me as a rank amateur.
I hadn’t thought of this story for a long time. When it crossed my mind this week, I started thinking about times like this — times when people have followed me simply because I knew how to give the orders.
It was this way when I took informal control of a high school project that I told you about last year. It happened at a small daily newspaper where I was the youngest employee in the newsroom and was a terrible manager but an excellent editor. It’s happened other times.
But I was unsuccessful in building a company. What’s more, I now understand that I’ll never be any good at building companies. And I’ve found myself thinking — maybe for the first time consciously — that these are two entirely different skills.
I’m really good at getting things done. I might bruise some feelings. I might not be popular with everybody afterward. But the job will be done and it will be something we’ll be proud of.
I’m really bad at building organizations and setting long-term incentives and growing employees into their roles. I know all that is necessary. I just don’t want to do it. I have no interest in administration. I have no interest in doing all the necessary hard work that takes place between the high-pressure events on which I thrive.
This is why the newspapers where I worked as a general manager and as a publisher won awards for flashy things we did. It’s why we did beautiful big projects and impressed everybody every now and then, but nobody in upper management of my company cared.
I understand now that the company for which I was a publisher was a terrible fit for me. The upper management didn’t really care whether we did anything impressive. They didn’t care whether we won awards. They didn’t care that our readers loved us. All they cared about was administering the company on a daily basis and turning in reports to the regional accounting center.
They hired someone with a skillset that didn’t come close to matching what they thought was important. And I was slow to realize that. I just thought they were idiots.
I’ve known for a long time now that I will never be part of building a company unless I have the right partner — someone who likes and enjoys the parts that I hate. I used to see that as a weakness in myself. I used to think I was flawed in those ways.
Now it seems perfectly fine.
When I was young, I was trying to force myself to be something I wasn’t, because that’s what I thought a real business leader would be. I know now that’s not who I am. I understand it’s not what I’ll ever be.
I’m really good at some things. I’m really terrible at other things. Understanding the difference — and finding a way to stick with what I’m good at — is the key to me being happy and successful, instead of angry and miserable.
I admire the people who build organizations. I just don’t want to be one of them.