John McIntyre is a copy editor at the Baltimore Sun. The Baltimore Sun has won 15 Pulitzer Prizes, and is the paper for which Henry Louis Mencken* wrote from 1906-1948. In short, The Sun, and Mr. McIntyre, are class acts all around.
A few weeks ago, Mr. M wrote this entry in his blog: Skip the team talk; there’s work to be done. Go ahead and go read it. This blog will still be here when you get back.
Read? Great. He’s a genius.
In my years of leadership, especially leadership on college campuses where lots of these sort of “leadership” workshop things happen, I have never really gotten it. Half the time, I couldn’t get into it because it was so hokey. And the other half I couldn’t get into because I was too busy thinking about what was waiting on my desk back in my office. Revisions. Another issue of the campus paper. Budget proposals. Emails. Whatever. And, horribly, because I am one of those awful, disgusting persons who loves — and lives for — my work, I would rather have been at my own desk, doing the work. Because, as Mr. M says, “You build a team by doing the team’s work, the way an orchestra becomes a team by playing the music in rehearsal, not by pretending to be ninjas.”
The team works by putting out the paper, or the magazine, or the web-based news site, or the radio broadcast that plays 24/7, or the ad, or the copy, or the book, et cetera ad nauseum. Whatever it is, and whoever it is, you learn to be a team the best by doing the thing you’re doing. End of story. Period.
And yes, I pretended I was crossing a lava field on carpet squares. And yes, I helped haul people over a wall. And yes, I blindfolded myself and let people lead me around. But when I left, we all went back to our jobs, where we were at team already, and we were working together already because we were doing our jobs well.
Maybe that’s the thing for people in media. Maybe, instead of going out on retreats and to ropes courses or teambuilder games, coworkers from other industries should have to put on a 3-hour news broadcast from 5-8 a.m. 7 days a week. Or put a magazine together once a month. Or a tabloid newspaper once a week with college students. Or keep a radio station running all day every day. Maybe they should have to feel that “holy crap it’s deadline and the designer and copy editor are standing over my shoulder waiting for my story and I can’t remember if this guy’s name was Thompson or Thompsen” feeling.
Because there’s the feeling that a team supports you when you’re doing trust falls, and it’s a lot different than the feeling that a team supports you when it’s 11 p.m. and you’re banging out 800 words while the whole team is waiting because they’re not done until you’re done.
In my leadership roles, I’ve tried hard to be a worker bee. I’ve tried hard to be the first one there and the last one to leave. I don’t ever want to be resting on my laurels or awards. It always must be “What’s next?” not “Hey, look what we did.” I’m not big on complaining or blaming, but I am big on fixing processes and looking ahead. I’m also big on work.
(Side note: I am one of those really bizarre, weird people who believe that the feeling of having done, and completed, an arduous task is the best reward for it. Knowing I did hard work is the best reward for hard work there is. I don’t care if this makes me a freak. I love it. I thrive on that energy of daunting tasks and things people say can’t be done. In the words of Jay-Z, “Difficult takes a day; impossible takes a week.”)
I hope I’ve succeeded. But even if I haven’t, I’m still young(ish), and at least I’ve identified a goal for myself as a leader. And that’s progress, too.
*HLM was kind enough to write his own epitaph, but it isn’t on his tombstone: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” He died in his sleep, which sounds like a pretty lovely way to go.