Sunday, July 8, 2012

The 'Uncle Leo' Thing

I first came across the term "Uncle Leo" while reading a copy of TIME in a waiting room early last month at Mass Eye and Ear.  It was in one of the regular TIME columns by one of the political writers, and it had to do with the endless, often contradictory advice that constantly flows into the ear of a political candidate.  The term, Seinfeld fans will know, comes from the Uncle Leo character on the show who was, well, full of readily-available advice.

The reporter wrote about how candidate Mitt Romney is besieged with advice from well-meaning people everywhere he goes... "Be more moderate," "Be more conservative," "Court more women voters," "Don't look at women voters as a special interest bloc," "Be tough on immigration reform," "Don't alienate Latino voters," and so on and so on.  One of the curious things the author pointed out was that people who would never claim to have expertise in other fields in which they had never worked were so quick to dispense with political advice to someone who has previously run for Senator, Governor, and President.

A few weeks after reading that, I got the chance to sit down and meet with Rita Savard, the editor/publisher/EverythingPerson for Howl in Lowell.  We were meeting to talk about a major service learning project that may tie together several big entities across the city (more details to come, eventually), but I also took advantage of the chance to ask about some of the issues associated with running an independent, on-line, alternative news outlet.

Sho'nuff, there are no shortage of Uncle Leos with great ideas about her field (have they all run independent, on-line, alternative news outlets before?)  Much like any Uncle Leos in any other field, they are almost always well-intentioned.  And again, much like any Uncle Leos anywhere else, they are a free-flowing idea fountain, but not willing to put any 'sweat equity' into the concept.

Therein, by the way, lies the difference between truly effective people in any organization and, well, the 'everyone else' who always complains about how management 'just doesn't get it' and 'won't listen to my ideas.'

As someone who works for an activist Mayor who literally keeps an open door, posts public office hours, and makes time for constituents regardless of whether they are 'strong city voters' I get to see the difference all the time.

It's like, let's say you are trying to garner support for [insert name of your pet program].  If you put your own muscle behind something (i.e. a support letter addressed to the federal official who will determine whether you get funding), and e-mail it over to the person whose John Hancock you seek, he will review it, make sure it all makes sense (i.e. it's not an early release request for Charles Manson), sign it and return it...Mission accomplished.

However, let's say you start off with a more open-ended request (i.e. read this 40-page document and get back to me with your thoughts about whether you'd support), now you've tilted the 'effort scale' in the other direction.  Chances are, you are much less likely to come away satisfied.

It's pretty much the same anywhere.  In pretty much every field I've ever been exposed to, or any organization I've ever been a part of there, there is always a surplus of people who want to be the 'Rainmakers,' the 'wheeler-dealers' or the 'delegator-managers.'  Simultaneously, there are NEVER enough people who want to real *nug* through the hard work, read all the relevant memos, chase down the multi-source reporting, write the grant proposals, update the online content, build the code, etc.

My prior full-time gig was in the very bloated field of intelligence, which I hope any taxpayer knows has ballooned since 9/11 to the tune of several billions in annual new costs [now tell me, are you more worried about someone collecting $900/month to be on SSI, or someone making ten times that to scratch his goatee in a basement outside of DC]?

Anyway, one of the worst cliches I hear in that world is the lame line about how "it's all networking, dude.  I don't actually read any reporting, but I get all the info I need because I'm able to talk to people."

Uhh, not so much.  REALLY good intelligence professionals are fully capable of doing both.  People who don't like to do the grunt work compensate for it by coming up with lame lines like the one above.

To try to tie all this back together in a coherent point, it's fine to be an Uncle Leo.  Your intentions are good, I know.  But before you open your pie-hole to complain about your boss, your manager, your Company Commander, your First Sergeant, Chief, or whoever it is that you think doesn't listen to your ideas about how to make things better, really ask yourself this difficult question:  Did YOU put all the requisite effort into showing how something could work, or to make it work, and then present it for someone to bottom-line with a signature or initials?  Or, did you just say something out loud to no one in particular, and then make some futile, hands-in-the-air complaint about how no one around you has enough 'common sense' to see it the way you do?

My postulate is that no matter what field you're in, what type of firm you work for, or where you are geographically, you'll have an easier time finding the latter types than the former types.  

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