Saturday, October 22, 2011

Are you sure you're a born leader?

          For the last few quarters at the Art Institute, I was invited to speak to the Leadership class about a subject I am eminently qualified to talk about: bad leaders.

          I guess everyone's had a bad leader from time to time, but I seem to have had a string of them in the advertising business. Nice people perhaps, good intentions generally, but bad leadership.

          There was my first copy supervisor, for example. Probably a nice gentle guy at home where he lived with his mother, but passive aggressive at the office. He assumed that if you worked fast, you did the job wrong. My personal modus operandi is to tackle an assignment the moment I get it, something I learned in high school Latin class, in self defense. Finishing quickly, for this guy, was proof I was sloppy.

           As soon as I showed the copy to him, his red pencil reared its ugly lead, and he re-wrote it. Guess I'm a fast learner, because after a couple of these, I simply did the work, put it in my desk drawer, retrieved it a few days later and presented it. "See how much better it is when you spend the time," he said. "I knew you had it in you." Oye.

          My second copy supervisor was also leadership-deprived. He had been an account supervisor and only knew what he read. Everything I did was "fine", "okay", "get it typed", or "show it to Gilbert", the head art director. The only time he inspired me was when I showed him my copy for a wine ad. He put down the paper,  looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Harvey, there's a fine line between bullshit and too much bullshit." For that, I loved him.

          My next non-leader was a very scared man, afraid to make a decision. Show him an ad and he would twist his neck, wrap his hands together, and ask if he could hold onto it overnight. My guess is that his wife wrote good critiques.

          My champion in this category was Boris, whose first words to me when he hired me as creative director were, "I don't want to be a nursemaid. Do whatever you think is right." If there were times you wanted a second opinion or had a worry you'd want squashed then and there, Boris was out. Boy, was he out. He was also having an affair with an art director who worked for me, and whose work he always recommended to clients, which, naturally, upset the other creatives on staff.

         Fortunately, early on I did have a mentor to empathize with me, or I probably would've become a pharmacist or something.

         Good leaders are hard to find, I guess. Sometimes you have to train them yourself.

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