Last week, Comedy Central broadcast the final episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the show regularly, but I’ve been a Daily Show fan from its humble beginnings with its first host, Craig Kilborn. My memory may be wrong, but I remember watching the show in the spring of 1999 while I was living and teaching in Delaware.
After each episode — and I most likely watched the rebroadcast of the previous night’s episode at its earlier airtime — I went promptly to bed so I could earn a healthy amount of sleep and wake the next morning in time for my commute to the horrible middle school at which I was a long-term substitute music teacher.
Kilborn was soon replaced by Jon Stewart, who was the half-brother of my hometown neighbor. Stewart, during his time as the host of some kind of talk show on MTV (Music Television), visited my high school’s television production studio to hang around the “Ram Report” and sign autographs.
As host, Stewart changed the direction and tone of The Daily Show. Of course I wasn’t there, so I have no idea how this transition and his rise to prominence in the media was effected. But the show’s former correspondent and incoming host of CBS’s Late Show, Stephen Colbert, gave the world a few hints when he appeared on the final episode of Stewart’s Daily Show and offered a heartfelt tribute to his former boss:
“We learned from you, by example, how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect. You are infuriatingly good at your job.”
Somehow, Stewart managed his own transition from a mediocre stand-up comedian to a media star, and if Colbert’s words are to be trusted (and I do trust them), a great leader of people. The boss of his show. A man who made careers of others. Colbert, like many of the comedians The Daily Show honed under Stewart’s leadership, has risen into great prominence.
Colbert concisely identified three important aspects of people-leadership. And he put it into terms that offer me something to strive for as I lead people in my daily business, in my passions, and in my life in general.
Intention. This is all about setting out to do the right thing. As my girlfriend likes to say, “Make good choices.” A terrible thing is leaving the situation of your life up to the choices of other people instead of the choices you make. For years, in certain situations, I avoided making choices. I avoided some easy choices, but a lot of difficult choices. As a result, the life I was living was designed less by me and more by the world around me.
This isn’t what I wanted, so I eventually started making choices, taking control over the situations in my life, and my life improved by every measure as a result. A strong intention is a conviction. You can determine your values, the issues, ideals, and attitudes that are important to you, and consciously decide to live by them. It’s the difference between thinking something is important and acting though that thing is important.
As a leader, intention is having a goal, communicating that goal, and making decisions that directly move everybody involved towards achieving that goal.
Clarity. Here’s a quality whose definitions span a wide variety of meanings. Being clear is a result of good communication. A leader fosters communication among all levels, so regardless of hierarchical standing, everyone understands goals, paths, procedures, and policies. This leads to another type of clarity: transparency. Leadership through proprietary knowledge isn’t successful. You can’t be a good leader while hiding information to others, even if it seems like that strategy protects your position.
Issues have maintainable clarity when they are kept simple. Unnecessary confusion, whether through too many details, inconsistent attitudes, too much indecision, or changing decisions, weaken any argument. Therefore, these problems weaken a people-leader, as one’s argument is how one convinces others to coordinate efforts towards the shared goals.
Respect. There shouldn’t even need to be a discussion about respect. All good leaders should exercise respect of those who report to them, not just respect of those who have the power to make higher-level decisions. To lead people, one must show respect immediately, not demand respect. One form of respect is valuing the opinions of others. You can’t be a good decision maker when you don’t take into account the “downstream” effects upon the people who will be ultimately charged with responsibility for carrying out the directives of that decision.
One clear violation of respect is shown when leaders delegate responsibility without authority. Yes, good leaders must relinquish their own control in many cases. If you provide responsibility for a task without also providing the authority to make decisions surrounding that task, they will feel impotent to make the best choices possible, frustrated when blamed for apparent mistakes or failures, and resentful of the mistrust of their ability to think for themselves. From the leader’s perspective, if someone is worthy of receiving responsibility, they should also be capable of handling the authority to make decisions.
Respect is also indicated through trusting others to share all necessary information.
How did Jon Stewart gain the respect of Stephen Colbert and other members of The Daily Show’s team? The answer is probably revealed in his next statement: “You are infuriatingly good at your job.” I’m making an assumption, but it seems like Stewart had a mission. While the stated mission of the show seems to have been to be the “Best Fucking News Team Ever,” the true mission was more about entertainment. Your opinion of whether The Daily Show correspondents ever came close to a “news team” probably depends on your political ideology, but the show was clearly entertaining to a large audience.
Stewart, with a role on The Daily Show that was much more than just host or funny news-anchor, set the direction of the production towards this mission. And by being “infuriatingly good,” he earned the respect of others who took pride in their work. When you demand excellence from not only others but also yourself, you hold yourself up to the same standards you hold others, and respect naturally flows.
As I go about my days, I’ll continue to remember to act with intention, strive towards clarity, and respect my teams. There have been times when I will falter in one or another aspect, and I have, even recently. Thanks to Colbert’s concise admiration for how Stewart cultivated one of the biggest successes in television entertainment, I have a memorable way to direct my energy as I find myself in various leadership roles throughout my life.
I want to be infuriatingly good at my job. I want to excel at the things that I do so much that it incites fury in others. So — I need to continue practicing and achieving at the highest level possible for myself.
Photo: Victoria Will/Invision/AP