By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Back in my days as publisher of a small community newspaper group, we got a new electronic typesetter machine.

It was amazing. It could spit out justified type in any of several different fonts, each in four versions -- regular, bold, italic or bold italic. It could set a foot long galley in a matter of seconds.

There was only one thing it couldn’t do. It couldn’t keep its brains from scrambling with infuriating regularity.

We had purchased the machine – used – only because we needed it. That is to say, we needed it up and running and doing all its magic at break-neck speed.

When it worked it was a marvel. When it didn’t – which was way too often – it was a huge pain at the very lowest part of the back.

When its brains got scrambled, it was usually a pretty easy fix. You reprogrammed it by flipping a couple of switches and running a special paper tape through its tape reader.

Then it was all better … until it wasn’t again.

One week it was more troublesome than it had been before. I came into the office two or three days in a row after calling on advertising accounts to find the people in our typesetting department waiting to pounce on me.

“The typesetter is broken,” one or more would proclaim. The first couple of times I put down my handful of stuff, grabbed the program tape, flipped a few switches and fixed the machine in short order.

The staff was grateful. But I wondered why they didn’t just fix it themselves. They had been shown how to do exactly as I had done, but clearly they were intimidated by this new contraption.

And sometimes it had to be reprogrammed more than once before it was all better. So it occurred to me that a little confidence and persistence were required.

Obviously, I couldn’t have them waiting around for me to get back to the office before running out their galleys and giving them to the proofreaders so we could start putting our papers together.

We had to produce four newspapers, a large section common to all of them, and three shoppers in the first four days of the week. No one came into work exactly sure when we would be done and they could go home.

It was a great, wonderfully gifted, dedicated and hard-working team. But our new amazing typesetting machine was a huge stumbling block to getting the work done.

I think it was the third day in a row that I came into the office and found the typesetting machine sitting in stoic silence instead of making all sorts of strange sounds while a panel of lights flickered on and off in no apparent pattern.

Noise and lights indicated it was being productive. No noise and no lights indicated it was holding up the whole newspaper producing process. One of the people in the department noticed me and said, “It happened again.”

I was just about to break into my new Mr. Fixit role when a thought came to me. If I ever wanted to be free of this task – and make the staff free of me – I needed a different approach.

“Nuts,” I said, clearly frustrated. “Not again.” But then instead of jumping in to save the day, as Mighty Mouse surely would have, I asked a simple question. “What do you think we should do?” And then I just stood there waiting for an answer.

It was quiet in the room for a moment or two. Then someone said, “I think we should reprogram it again.” She didn’t say it like she was super sure of herself.

“Great idea,” I proclaimed. “Do you remember how to do it?”

“I think I do, but I’m not entirely sure,” my colleague replied.

“Well, give it a go and let’s see what happens,” I said. “You can’t hurt it. And if you run into a problem, I’ll try to help with it.”

She found the programming tape and loaded into the tape reader. She hesitated picking which buttons to switch and at one point looked over to me for reassurance. I nodded and mumbled, “Yup, that’s it.”

She pushed the start button and the tape reader quickly took up the tape and flew to the end. She took it out and loaded a tape the typesetters had punched on their video display terminals. The marvelous machine started to sweep through that tape too and the machine started making all the noises associated with producing galleys of phototype.

She was ecstatic. “You did it,” I proclaimed. “Mission accomplished.”

And from that point on they never came to me with the need to reprogram the machine. The first person who had done it patiently showed the others how to do it in case she was gone, and in a matter of minutes we had a room full of fully competent reprogrammers.

They had been taught how to do it weeks earlier. But they had never really learned that they were competent to do it.

And if I hadn’t eventually had a Eureka! Moment, they might never have learned that last vital lesson.

Author Liz Wiseman says all good leaders are “multipliers” who empower others in a variety of ways to grow in competence and confidence on the job. But not all leaders are “multipliers.”

In fact, sometimes the most technically intelligent leaders are actually “diminishers” – people who mistakenly think leadership is an opportunity to be a know-it-all and sometimes even bully others.