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Be Kind. Rewind.

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jonathan Seitz, Technical Engineering Manager at Harvard University. He is a current MOR program participant.  Jonathan may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

My first job in high school was at my local Blockbuster Video. In those pre-streaming days, the role of “Video Store Clerk” still held a lot of cultural cachet. And I threw myself into being the best Video Store Clerk I could be. I knew the store backward and forwards, and I was the go-to for those “Do you have that movie where that guy does that thing?” questions.

So, when I was offered a shift supervisor role, I jumped at it. The role came with a nicer polo shirt and the discretion to cancel late fees. I was certain that my former peers would all look up to me and respect the authority I had so clearly earned.

Except, of course, nobody cared about the new polo, and being allowed to cancel late fees just meant that I was the one who had to talk to customers who were upset about their late fees. It was more responsibility for — as I saw it then — little reward.

So I quit, and at age 17, I decided I wasn’t cut out for management. I had already decided to study journalism in college, and my hero then was Hunter S. Thompson. I wanted to be that kind of freewheeling gonzo correspondent, traveling the world and never needing to worry about management or fancy polo shirts again.

However, the bottom fell out of the journalism industry just as I was graduating college. Not only did those gonzo jobs not exist anymore, but hardly any journalism jobs existed. I bounced around small-town papers in the Boston area before a chance connection from an old professor landed me at Harvard, where I worked on the editorial side of a small quarterly magazine.

Once again, I threw myself into the job, trying to learn everything I could about the magazine and the foundation that supported it. I learned how to be a fact-checker, proofreader, copy editor, and photo researcher, and since I was the youngest person on staff, I oversaw the social media channels and the website.

There was no step up this time, though. It was a small, three-person team behind the magazine, and I was stuck at the bottom of the masthead. Meanwhile, the boss at the top was a proud graduate of the Darth Vader School of Management. Everything had to be done their way, and any problem or delay in the magazine was grounds for a verbal dressing down. The tantrums and tirades just choked away whatever interest I once had in journalism, and it felt like any ideas I had for improving the magazine would never be accepted.

So, I made an exit plan. I started studying software development through Harvard’s Extension School and kept an eye out for new opportunities elsewhere. Finally, I found a role in the Computing Office at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Once again, I was at an entry level role, working as a “web support specialist” helping faculty set up their websites.

But this time, something different happened. I had bosses and managers who wanted to meet and talk about things other than whatever I’d done wrong — bosses who wanted to talk about my career and my goals. And it wasn’t long before I was given the chance to work on more interesting projects and eventually move to the software development team, then up to the senior developer position on that team. I started to see “Leadership” up close, and how a good boss can lift up everyone on their team.

Except, I had already decided at 17 that I wasn’t cut out for management. I was going to stick with the individual contributor track and, as usual, throw myself into being the best individual contributor I could be. I’d leave all the management and leadership stuff to those “natural leaders.”

…until, that is, in 2019 when my daughter was born. I very quickly learned that there is no individual contributor track in parenting. You must be a leader, teacher, and manager every day.

I had to be a learner, too. One of the biggest leadership lessons my daughter taught me was about solving puzzles. She liked doing puzzles but would get frustrated when she couldn’t find the right pieces. I had to fight the urge to jump in and do it for her while also trying to give her some hints so that she could figure it out on her own.

And I realized that she was fundamentally seeing the pieces differently than I was. I could look at a puzzle piece and see it was Bluey’s ear on that corner piece, but she looked at the same piece and saw funny shapes.

This gave me a new framework for thinking about leadership, especially when working with people. I realized leadership required a kind of applied empathy: not just understanding what another person is feeling but finding ways to use that understanding and perspective to help them succeed on their own terms.

More importantly, I started to grant that same empathy to myself — to the teenage video store clerk, the frustrated journalist, the web support specialist, the new dad. I realized that I’d been approaching so much of my career from that old mindset of leadership needing to be about innate authority and not as a skillset that would need to be developed and honed.

That “natural leader” I worked with saw that too and helped to pull some of those skills out of me. When he left for another role in 2022, he recommended me to take over leading the team.

And so, almost twenty years later, I’m back in management. I still field complaints and fight the urge to jump in and help with the puzzles, but I’m doing my best to be kind.

Last week, we asked about your institutions’ approach to the enrollment cliffs:

  • 20% said we proactively have a strategy in place.
  • 31% said we talk about it and have some plans.
  • 13% said we don’t talk about that, it’s too scary.
  • 36% said I don’t know, but I hope someone else is talking about it.

Thank you for your honesty in the breadth of answers last week. One dimension that makes a huge difference both individually and as collective institutions is our intentionality, especially when confronting difficult issues. Institutional concerns can take years of lead time. Bravo to those institutions being intentional.