All posts by Harlan Landes

Being infuriatingly good.

Good At Your Job

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

Design: Time Bandits vs. Doctor Who

I don’t know why I missed this for so long, but catching the tail end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits on television including the end titles, I was reminded not just of the map, the central device throughout the film, but the design of the map.

And with fresher eyes, I noticed the similarities between the map’s design and the re-imagined Gallifreyan written language on the revived series of Doctor Who. It’s a good thing the artists working on Doctor Who took the time to focus on the language of the Time Lords, as the classic series did a horrible job with the task. Watching the show as a kid, I remember coming up with some kind of story why the language looked like Greek and/or mathematical equations.

The new Gallifreyan written language is based on circles (let’s invent the word circumography — or are they circumglyphs?), similar to the Time Bandits cartography. Here’s a screenshot of the map from the film next to an image of Gallifreyan writing.

Time Bandits vs Doctor Who

What do you think? Is there a similarity? Would you even say that Doctor Who ripped off the design of Gallifreyan script from Time Bandits?

Tracking the mysterious snowy owl.

The Snowy Owl

This is Hungerford, a large female snowy owl. Last summer she was just a hatchling — a gray ball of fuzz in the middle of the Arctic tundra. In the fall, newly equipped with adult plumage, she flew thousands of miles south until she reached the coast of Maryland. And this winter, she became an important part of an unprecedented research project.

Hungerford is getting fitted with a GPS transmitter. For science.

The one classic Doctor Who villain the new series should not bring back.

The new series of Doctor Who appeals to fans of the classic series by occasionally referring to events or characters who appeared in the show before its return to the small screen in 2005. We’ve had reappearances of companions like Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, revisitations to locations like Gallifrey and the I.M. Foreman scrap yard, and reinvasions by evildoers familiar like Daleks and Cybermen.

Production design, at least by the 1980s, worked for television. The scriptwriting ranged from somewhat interesting to enlightening. It certainly held my attention as a kid. Today, as viewers have come to expect higher production values, where television dramas are more like mini-films than British television drama of the twentieth century, rewatching the classic series can be a painful experience.

A strong villain like the Zygons can come back to the new series thirty years since their only appearance in the classic series and still be acceptable for new viewers, as Stephen Moffat showed the audience in the 50th anniversary special. But even as late as the 1980s, as I’ve discovered while watching Tom Baker’s final season and the first season with producer John-Nathan Turner at the helm of Doctor Who, there are some things from the classic series that could never make the jump to today’s audience.

Yet there are also aspects that have stood the passing of time. I remember these early 1980 episodes most from my first watching due to the music. At the time, I was a big fan of synth, and Doctor Who was probably my biggest exposure to that music. The music surprisingly holds up to listening in 2013. It’s clearly a style that fits the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it is composed well and goes a long way to assist the on-screen drama.

MeglosCharacters, especially aliens, from this era of the show don’t hold up as well. Meet Meglos, the villain in the series of the same name, the second story in season 18 of the classic series, aired in 1980. The freelance writers hired for this episode apparently drew inspiration from a wilting cactus in their English flat.

The design of the alien monster was approved because it was something that hadn’t been seen on Doctor Who in the show’s previews 17 years. And it hasn’t been seen since.

That said, there’s always a possibility that the show’s current creative team could take one of the worst aspects of the classic series and give it a rebirth for a new series. That might be a good idea for old aspects that have a strong foundation. Good writers could turn yesterday’s garbage into something fresh and engaging. But why bother when you can start from scratch?

Unfortunately for the series as a whole, Meglos, the character, story, and the broadcast, is what exemplifies the typical opinion of the series by non-fans: ridiculous costumes, unbelievable design concepts, and bad acting.

Next time you’re driving through the desert in Arizona, you may look at the landscape differently after watching this story. Let’s let this villain die.

War of the Worlds

Happy 75th birthday, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Having lived much of my childhood close to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this broadcast was always mystical to me. I’ve driven past Grover’s Mill, located in West Windsor Township, and imagined what it would have been like if Martians had landed in the farm fields nearby.

And I’ve thought about how easy it was to convince many radio listeners that the events described in the broadcast were real. People were used to getting their news from the radio. They were used to emergency interruptions with news about the war. People were nervous about the state of the world, and this broadcast, although many people understood an alien invasion is the work of fiction, were primed to cognitively accept this kind of disaster. The medium legitimized the story; reading a book is one thing, but a news story on the radio lends authority to the story, despite the prevalence of drama on the radio.

Imagine yourself in your sitting room a night in October of 1938, with the radio as the centerpiece. And spend the hour listening to the broadcast.