Before I write, I clean. Actually, organize is more like it. I go through my office at the magazine or my writing space at home and put things in neat little stacks, each of them squared off with military precision. I also throw stuff away. Lots of stuff. I often end up throwing away really important stuff -- stuff that I need for a key meeting two days later, stuff like Inc's annual forecast -- and I organize and reorganize the truly inessential stuff, the garbage, into nice, neat piles. So I suppose it's more accurate to say, before I write, I disorganize.
Whatever -- it's very therapeutic.
I developed this routine a long time ago, in my first editorial job, at a magazine in New York. Every time I sat down to write, I would freeze. (Sportswriter Red Smith once wrote, "Writing is easy -- I just open a vein and bleed." At least he got something down on the page.) One day, stumped by a particularly challenging subject -- "Famous New Yorkers and Their Cats," I think -- I did something that didn't come easily. I asked for help. I cruised around a newsroom that included some very well-known people who not only wrote like angels but wrote fast and effortlessly, or so I thought.
Like most accomplished writers, they were willing to share their tricks. One person showered immediately before writing, then proceeded directly to the typewriter without toweling off or dressing, which explained why she never wrote a word in the newsroom. Another used three typewriters, side by side. When he got stuck on one machine, he moved to the next. Yet another put on disguises. "Think of it as aesthetic cross-dressing," she told me. "It helps me get out of myself." I admit to trying one or two of those approaches, but nothing worked for me until I discovered the miraculous effect of organizing and reorganizing my work space.
That exercise became my way of imposing order on my little corner of the world. It's how I build my confidence that I can impose order in my writing.
I suspect many people, not just writers, use a similar process to get themselves mentally prepared for work. Sometimes organizations need such routines as well. I know a turnaround guy, for example, who says that when he goes into a large, troubled company, his greatest challenge has nothing to do with strategy or financial engineering. Rather it's the deep-seated feeling among the people who work there that the company has lost the capacity to get anything done.
So the guy begins the turnaround by having the company's top managers make a list of things that are broken: leaky faucets, toilets that don't flush properly, windows that have been painted shut, office-supply closets in disarray. Then he gives the managers a few days to fix the problems. They can't have someone else do it; they have to make the repairs on their own. The turnaround guy says that the drill never fails. People become giddy over their ability to deal with a malfunctioning watercooler. You build from there, he says, but you always start with the small things.
Which brings me to the world we confront at the beginning of a new year. That world is very different from the one we faced a mere 12 months ago. Something changed in the past year, and it happened very abruptly. A decade-long period of economic expansion just stopped, leaving many of us seriously overextended, with organizations that had been designed to function in a "yes" economy. Suddenly, everybody from customers to capital providers was saying no. Then came the attacks of September 11.
The cascade of events has led to much talk about the need for a new kind of leadership. I'm not sure I buy that idea. I don't think we have a clue yet about what lies ahead. As we sift through our personal and collective reactions to recent events it's impossible to know which changes are permanent and which are temporary.
What we can say for certain is that the arena over which any of us has control has grown smaller. In those smaller arenas, the challenge is to build, or rebuild, in ourselves and our organizations the quiet confidence that we still have the ability to get the right things done. When you think about it, that's not a bad definition of leadership.
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