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A creative writing blog by Shawn M Klimek / Twitter: @shawnmklimek
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Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Lead Follows

I've been ruminating recently on leading and following--and on the contrasting, sometimes conflicting mindsets required.  Of course everyone requires both skill sets: all of us are both directors and actors, in different situations.  As a middle child, I learned early how to shift status roles, which has proved helpful.  But two of my experiences as a young man have been coming back to me lately, because both revealed different insights about those two distinct mindsets.

During my second year in the U.S. Army, I was one of a few PFC's (privates, first class) given special permission to attend a Primary Leadership Development Course (usually reserved for corporals, specialists and sergeants), which is basic training to be an effective NCO (Non-commissioned Officer).

During each week of the month-long course, each student is given the chance to try at least one leadership role: team leader, squad leader (or even platoon leader--but that role is reserved for the highest-ranking students, none of whom happened to be amongst my more-junior squad).  The squad leader for the week was given an arm band to wear, displaying sergeant stripes:

During the first week of the course I attended, the soldier selected to be our squad leader excelled in the role. But his evaluation dipped sharply in the second week when he performed horribly in his turn as a follower, proving insolent, obstinate, etc.. By contrast, another student noted for his good attitude and exemplary soldiering that first week (not only did he excel during daily inspections, but consistently finishing his preparations early, he was kind and always reached out to help his struggling peers) was elevated to the squad leader role for our second week. Unfortunately, he then proved to be a horrible leader: shrill, over-demanding and short tempered. Morale plummeted so quickly that the facilitator felt it necessary to end his tenure early, stripping him of his arm band and giving it to me instead, half-a-week before my scheduled turn.

When assigning me the role, the facilitator told me privately that several of my peers had gotten into trouble for attitude problems or outright rule-breaking, and were set to be dismissed from the course unless I chose to take on the burden of dealing with them. The dismissal would happen quietly, she assured me, and they would never know I had been given the option to keep them around.

I considered my impressions of the delinquents she identified, and, upon reflection, assured her that I felt I could manage them. And so I did. Among them was that first-week squad leader. I made him one of my team leaders-- playing to his strengths, I reasoned. It worked.

Morale reversed. Another of the redeemed delinquents was so grateful to me, he worked especially hard at his tasks. His only criticism was that it seemed odd to him to hear "please and thank you" when receiving orders. By God's grace, everything went miraculously well for the next week and a half until-- I finally dropped the ball (perhaps also by Providence).

In the wee hours the morning of the all-important commandant's inspection, I discovered that my second team leader, whom I had charged with supervising the floor-waxing, was using an open flame to melt the wax can, despite my having expressly reminded him earlier that the hazardous practice was strictly forbidden because of our wooden WWII barracks. He had done his best for the first hours of the night, he pleaded, but finding himself exhausted and behind schedule with no sleep yet and only a few hours to go, he finally had resorted to cheating.  Being equally exhausted, I only scolded him but then gave into his desperate pleading, admonishing him only to be extremely careful as he finished. This was my failure.

When our violation was later discovered and reported, he offered to take the sole blame. But I knew that isn't how leadership works. During the subsequent private reprimand by our two facilitators, I felt exhausted, dejected and almost at the point of tears. The same facilitator who had elevated me to squad leader decided to cheer me up by reminding me how quickly she had stripped the squad-leader arm band from my predecessor, then pointing out that, despite my own misstep, I had been allowed to keep the one on my own sleeve.

My final day as a leader in the course was spent being punished. Despite a total lack of sleep, I and two fellow miscreants (including my team leader), were restricted to quarters for the whole weekend when all our fellows were enjoying the first break of the course. We were further required to report hourly to the "CQ" (person on Charge of Quarters duty).  I have little memory of that Saturday, however, as I was apparently asleep throughout.  My peers informed me with a laugh, that several times, they had to catch me to prevent my toppling over onto the CQ desk.


The second experience I'll relate informed my ideas about leading and following in a completely different sense.  About five years later--not long after college, I parlayed my Creative Arts degree into a job as a reservationist for a California traffic violator's school, taught by actors and comedians.  The job involved receiving phone queries from persons interested in attending such a school, and trying to convert those conversations into reservations.

Within a few months, I was earning the best statistics of any reservationist, and was promoted to "head-reservationist"--which meant I would now train new-hires, and was authorized to coach my peers.  For example, taking to task the only reservationist who actually equaled my pace for converting calls to reservations about his rudeness.  His brusque. quantity-over-quality sales technique [he never hesitated to hang-up mid-call if he sensed it wasn't going to be a sale], not only meant some other reservationist had to waste time (and emotion) receiving an irate call-back, but half of the appointments that he secured were ultimately "no-shows".

Despite what may be implied by the term "head" in my new title, my job had changed little; I remained still largely a "follower" in the important sense that my job was mostly passive; it was about reacting to phone calls.

My sales technique relied upon improvisational charm and humor in addition to persuasion, but was otherwise rote. On the computer screen before me were a series of scripted pages into which I first read such menu options as where or when they might attend one of our classes, and then, if they liked one of the choices, input their information before concluding with a step-by-step recitation of appointment details.

Because we were paid by commission,  I earned more than my peers: about $12 an hour (when the business was at its peak, in the early '90s). But one perk of the job was that the traffic school's, theme gave me license to joke around with prospective students. Making them laugh helped with sales and made them look forward to the class, which helped attendance, but it also made the day fun.  Another key perk--and the one most relevant to my second insight, is that when the phones weren't ringing off the hook, the job was actually fairly relaxing. There were required appointment-reminder calls, but otherwise, during their downtime, a reservationist could do homework or read or draw, for example. (I usually drew).

Unfortunately, this relaxation perk vanished toward the end of my second year at the traffic school, when the business began to decline because of factors related to increasing competition.  Some of these factors included illegal competitor behaviors (e.g., registering the same school under a dozen names in order to dominate the court-distributed list of authorized traffic schools).  Others, were too legal--including state regulations written with a competitive bias, passed at the behest of competitor-hired lobbyists. But what ultimately torpedoed traffic school profitability for any school dependent upon live classes was a legal decision--argued to be an equal-access entitlement issue--that violators be allowed to attend traffic school online.

Some time after the traffic-school owner began to notice the phones slowing down, he decided that reservationists should be leveraging the additional downtime time to make "quality-control" calls, in addition to appointment-reminder calls.
In response to increasing scrutiny and regulation, "quality-control" calls were out-calls to class attendees to collect feedback about classes tainted either by a customer complaint or else concerning documentation (e.g., suspiciously conflicting sign-out times, or multiple attendee signatures with duplicate handwriting).  Sometimes dishonest instructors were discovered and fired; sometimes evidence was collected to verify (confirm or challange) the testimony of an unhappy customer.
Obviously, since reservationists were paid only by commission, no one felt very motivated to make these QC calls until some fixed hourly stipend was offered. Commissions had already begun sagging during the fore-mentioned industry decline so--perhaps especially for the low-earners--this change took some of the sting out of racing to pick up increasingly infrequent phone-calls. But personally, because I now had no option to relax between calls, I became far less happy.

Soon after, by the way, I was offered a promotion to the role of "Instructor Coordinator", and compensated by an hourly wage, instead of commission, amounting to a moderate pay increase.  But the job would only last another year or so.

If the above anecdotes seem meandering and long-winded, they appropriately reflect well my current mindset of beating about the bush with respect to the fiction I'm supposed to be writing. My fantasy novel is stuck. The protagonist in my story has been doing too much following--that is, reacting to events; and not enough leading--that is, striving towards a goal.  The story needs a better plot, and its clearly not going to come to me by some passive inspiration.


  1. David Melton, "The best ideas come from the WORK, NOT from your HEAD."

  2. Sounds like as a fiction writer, you will have a good balance between leading and following. Letting characters lead, until it goes beyond their skill, then stepping in with direction and purpose, a touch on the wheel, but letting it spin...