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Douglas LeBlanc

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Seeking substance and servanthood in a self-help genre

The jokes posted near offices' water fountains often provide honest warnings about employee morale. When an opening arose for a new city editor at a daily newspaper where I worked in the 1980s, an office wag posted a cartoon of several men lined up on their hands and knees, each burying his face in the posterior in front of him. The anonymous jokester added a hand-scrawled caption—"City editor applicants"—that prompted widespread chuckles. Butt-kissing was not part of the written job description, of course, but many of my colleagues agreed that independent thinking was not an essential trait in the next city editor.

When I first went to work at that newspaper, as a lowly newsroom typist, becoming a full-time reporter was my life's goal. I could not imagine anything more glamorous or rewarding. Twenty years later, that company is my gold standard of occupational misery, the measure of just how terrible a job can become, even in my cherished field of journalism. The executive editor was a vulgar bully and bitter atheist whose idea of humor was to walk through the newsroom and hiss, "Faster, faster." I feared this man, but could never fabricate any respect for him.

Apart from his rage, he had few tools for leading his staff. His sense of office etiquette favored image over substance: he insisted that men wear ties to the job, but he sexually exploited a succession of women editors and reporters. He haunted my nightmares a few times each year until his recent death.

I think back to my newspaper days because they provided such a vivid sense of what I do not seek in a leader. Because I'm an introvert, a Christian, a Southerner, and the son of a Cajun who yelled with some frequency during my early childhood, I usually respect authority figures, unless they are venal or cowardly. My few attempts at being a manager have been so disastrous that I could write a series of essays on how not to hire or supervise anyone. But from where I work, as a writer who is happier being led than ...

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