Johnson's World: Leadership Off, and On, the Field

Next to parenting, leadership is the most influential role you’ll ever have.

February 1, 2017
Steve Johnson 2015 55e6019d76d0e
Printing News columnist Steve Johnson.

Several years ago, a local community college announced the elimination of its graphic-arts program. I felt the program was worth saving, however, so I, along with a couple who own a local quick-printing franchise, met with the college president to discuss the matter.

As it turned out, what ensued was no discussion at all. The president, surrounded by his entourage, proceeded to lecture us. There was no give and take, no listening, not the slightest pretense of interest in the opinions of others – even though he was meeting with experts in the field, including one (me) who sat on the college’s subject-matter advisory board.

While the head honcho was pontificating, his cabinet alternated between hanging on their chief’s every word and scowling at us, checking watches, and loudly sighing while we attempted to have our say. It was clear that these hangers-on were appalled that we were wasting their commandant’s valuable time by daring to question his judgement and motives in this matter, something they would never do.

We needn’t have felt singled out by the college president’s rudeness. Over the next few years, as widely reported by local and state media, he offended many with his high-handed actions, rudeness, combativeness, and contempt for rules and regulations, coupled with apparent poor judgment (to put it politely) in the use of public funds. These foolish and arrogant actions led, in turn, to public outcry, election of a reform slate to the school board, firing of a couple of top bureaucrats, and finally the dismissal of the president himself. A new president with impeccable credentials was brought in from out of state to restore public confidence.

Mirroring leadership style

This was how I found myself, along with the quick-print owner from the aforementioned meeting and a bevy of other civic leaders, sitting down to a recent lunch gathering where we were to be introduced to the new college president.

I noticed one fellow standing alone and looking a bit lost. He seemed vaguely familiar, yet I couldn’t place him. I invited him to join our table.

“Thank you, Mr. Johnson, sir,” he replied, seeming relieved to have a place to sit. “The last time we met was when our previous president was still in charge.” Ah ha, now it came back – this was one of the lieutenants in the former entourage, but oh how his attitude had changed. The difference? Leadership.

His previous boss had been arrogant, so he had been arrogant. His old boss had been insular, filling meeting rooms with sycophants so that there was no room for press, critics, or the public. His new boss, however, had instructed her lieutenants to leave the nest and mix with their constituency, hence his sitting at our table. His new boss had a career military background, hence the “sir.” It was a nice touch.

This upper manager’s 180-degree change in attitude mirrored his president’s style.

Next to parenting, leadership is the most influential role you’ll ever have. As in parenting, “Do as I say, not as I do” won’t ever cut it.

Advice from the field

As I write this, baseball’s spring training is just around the corner, and the Las Vegas oddsmakers are betting strongly on a repeat Cubs championship. How did “the doormat of the National League” (Steve Goodman’s words, not mine) climb to world champion? Leadership.

When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs in 2009, they made clear their objective: victory on the field. This differed from the previous owners, who paid lip service to winning while focusing primarily on profitability.

The Ricketts put their money where their mouths were by bringing in miracle worker Theo Epstein and giving him even broader powers than he had wielded in Boston, where he had engineered the Red Sox climb to championship status.

Epstein promptly brought in Jed Hoyer as general manager and Jason McLeod as scouting boss, re-assembling his successful Boston leadership. They went to work to build a new club, which was truly a team, and more than just a collection of players. The final piece of the puzzle was hiring Joe Maddon, a field manager suitable to lead and inspire all the newly acquired talent. The rest is history.

“Hire good people, who hire good people, and let them do their job,” advises Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. That’s leadership – whether you’re on the field or off it.