Best Advice I Ever Got

I taught English in public high schools for nine years, and the best principal I ever had taught me an important lesson. He said that when we had to call parents in for a kid’s behavior, “I don’t want you to let them leave until you’ve told them something that will make them feel good about their kid.”

I saw him do it. I’d called in the parents of a kid in my junior English class who did nothing. He didn’t disrupt the class; he wasn’t belligerent; he just sat there and did nothing. Never did homework, never did anything.

So the parents come in. We explain — me and the principal — what’s not happening. The parents sit there, silent. In my mind, I’m bailing. No hope here.

As the meeting ends, the principal says: “I want you to know that John is one of the finest natural athletes that ever came into this school.”

Now, maybe John was, but probably he wasn’t. The principal knew more about that than I did: He was the head football coach. I went to the games: I was also the high school bandleader. I never saw any natural athletic ability from number 71. But I tell you what: His parents walked out of the principal’s office smiling.

That’s leadership.

Leadership is not just tearing down, even if something has to be torn down. It’s about not giving up on other human beings, no matter how bad the humans may be, no matter how bad the situation is.

Now I’ll tell you what leadership is not. Back in the day, when newspapers existed, I was demoted from being a reporter to being an editor. That’s a joke. It’s supposed to be a promotion from reporter to editor. But as I look back over the scorched landscape of my 36 years in the news game, I think that may have been the worst promotion I ever got. Because reporting is fun. Editing is a grind.

Anyway, at this newspaper, the poor shlub of a copy editor to whom the daily obituaries fell had standing orders: Edit the obits first, because Mary the secretary could not go home until the obituaries had cleared the copy desk. And woe betide the editor who let a typo into an obituary. People paste them into the family Bible, for Pete’s sake.

So. One day a major news story broke in our back yard, an hour or so before the night copy desk came in at 3 p.m. I can’t tell you what the story is — I’m not trying to bust anyone’s chops here — but I guarantee you, you’ve heard about it.

So the guy who had the obits that day walks into the newsroom as all hell is breaking loose. Copy is piling up. Being a news guy, he jumps in and commences editing like a maniac — reliving, I can guarantee you, his better days as a reporter.

Wire service reporters are dribbling into the newsroom. The Times guy shows up. And in the middle of all this — news that will be reported around the world tomorrow morning — the boss of the poor shlub who forgot to edit the obits calls him out, in front of God and the staff and The Associated Press and The New York Times.

He tears the poor guy a new one, because he forgot to edit the obits before he edited breaking news.

That, my friends, is piss-poor leadership: Not that he busted the guy’s chops — after all, the obituary page had to get cleared, and Mary had to go home — but to embarrass the guy in front of the world was just counterproductive ball-busting: the search of a starved, puny ego looking for gratification, a moment of glory, no matter how tawdry, in his puny world.

Why am I telling these stories? Because it seems to me that the guy in the White House today is acting like that pathetic news editor — starved for attention, trying to seize his one great moment, any moment, careless of how much harm he’s wreaking upon other human beings — rather than the high school principal who showed me what leadership is: Compassion, and how to show it.

It’s something you have to learn. If you care to.

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