18 Leadership Lessons from Editor Terrorence
Here’s what I learned from a year of guiding 30 incredible writers
“Death beckons me, shall I give in?
Upon my end, shall I begin?
Fresh from the hearse,
Lemme drop a verse.”
— Terrorence of Arabia circa 2019
Team Content for Festember (TCF) is one of several teams that run the show at Festember, NIT Trichy’s national-level cultural festival (in India). Tomes can be written on the fest’s many sights and treats so I’ll get to the point. First off, here’s what we looked for and what our team members possessed in spades: the desire to create content. Grand ideas and great writing gave birth to a collective of incredible writers.
Poets who could shape emotions with verse. Geeks pouring their hearts out over obscure novels, music, and videogames. Actors and orators who could wield both the mic and the pen. Artists devoted to bettering themselves. Athletes who knew how important teamwork was. Students who knew that the written word led to harvests beyond academia, whose voices raised issues bigger than themselves. People unsure of their place in the world, people who found refuge in fiction, and those who found courage in giving clarity to their thoughts. All of them found a home here.
I am fortunate to have led this team in 2019 and I have no qualms in stating that the band of wordsmiths had their best year yet. While TCF has traditionally housed introverts who took a while to step out of their shells, this year was different. Very different.
This piece serves not just as a decorative distance marker but also as a flagbearer to the possibilities that arise when like-minded individuals come together. Introspection brought out all sorts of points to graph out. And while I can chart a happy course by connecting the right dots, the mistakes were far more educational.
Before we get into the details, here’s what TCF does:
- Emcee at events, guest lectures, and Proshows to crowds of all sizes
- Interview the enchanting personalities that the other teams bring to Festember (you’d be surprised at the eminent personas who show up)
- Pen social media, press reports, and website content, often at short notice for an online media presence of over 50k followers
- Design newsletters that would reach thousands of excited visitors
- Craft compelling articles of all kinds for our Medium blog
At first blush, it’s evident that this team has an ample amount of creative agency. And the “anyone can write” tirade dies in one’s throat once we showcase our results. There’s a reason why organizations of this scale have several teams dedicated to specific functions. Specialists handily trump jack-of-all-trades at what the former does best.
I’m not going to tell you that all was well and that we rode off into the sunset on colorful Teslas. I’m going to be blunt with my decisions, ones I reminisce with pride and those that ought to be forgiven. Heck, there were some situations that even corporate workplaces fail to defuse. On that note, I’ll start off with my missteps. Here are my biggest takeaways from a year of ruthless editing and execution.
Things that could have gone better
1. Art can exist beyond reason
As the last barrier between the approval of writing an article, I haven’t always been the most welcoming to unconventional ideas. While pieces that didn’t have a strong focus may have been better off discarded, it does a disservice to the person who thought of it. In a twin blow, it also prevents the writer from honing their writing on a topic that they love. All that ought to matter is that it lit up the eyes of the creator. Outliers that defy trends and expectations do find a way, after all.
2. Art also requires a certain cruelty
By that very token, I didn’t have it in myself to halt a moving article once it had begun to form. William Faulkner might have told us to murder our darlings but alphabet genocide would have been a tad excessive. Again, art is subjective. Pieces that I was unsure of went on to perform remarkably well. Writing for yourself is one thing but an audience tends to skew a creator’s perspective on what defines good content. It remains to be seen whether some threads are better snipped than spun.
3. Which is the lie, the mask or my face?
Before you come at me with your quills and your pens, I’m not saying I wasn’t myself. It is a common belief in my college (and most workplaces) that cold and impassive leaders get better results than sweet and empathetic ones. I fell into the second camp but foolishly tried to act tough at times. Eventually, I fell back to the belief that there was more to a team than getting work done. Having soft spots for members and expecting them to nail deadlines was a rather tough balancing act. But it worked.
4. Be on the same footing as the rest of your team
I had bold dreams and bolder ambitions for TCF. I wanted this year to be different, one where every single member grew as a writer as they took the entire team forward. Looking back, I can safely say that I achieved those goals and then some. But I wonder what might have happened if we all decided to sit down, buy a couple of milkshakes, and set goals together.
5. Don’t be a passenger who grabs the steering wheel
I admit, I’m a real-time strategy game addict. Maneuvering dozens of units to achieve victory is among my favorite pastimes. But in a team, micromanagement just leads to frustration and doubt. Members begin to question their place in a team if upper management wants to pull all the strings. My constant fear as a perfectionist kept me from truly handing away the reins to my juniors. But eventually, I did let go. And the results were glorious.
6. Teamwork is not a numbers game
I used to waddle in the belief that success meant big numbers and noteworthy accomplishments. And while we did succeed by those metrics too, it took me a while to see the bigger picture. The growth that each member experienced over the course of a year was the real fruit of our labor. After all, once we do what we needed to do (as a team), there really was no deadline for what we wanted to do. I’d say that success is about the memories we made along the way but that’d be too corny.
Things that went right (as a leader)
1. Don’t just iterate; evolve
I see the flaws in the tagline I swore by a couple of years ago. Any Pokémon will tell you that iteration is just as important as evolution. All I meant was that doing the same thing over and over again wouldn’t lead to different results (stolen from Albert Einstein/Vaas from Far Cry 3). It’s safe to say that we outdid ourselves in the creative department.
And with that, here’s a humble brag. From interviews with Pixar, Ubisoft, and Hollywood veterans to raising social causes like menstrual health and human trafficking, our Talks by the Firelight series shed a light on topics beyond the ordinary. The Erupt review series chronicled both delightful blockbusters and timeless classics. A meticulous branching tale and a 6-part mystery series that involved all hands on deck rounded up some of our more daring wins. Stronger partnerships with other teams also led to a more organized festival.
2. Less planning, more execution. But plan nonetheless
Too much planning can stall the execution of ideas. I’ve witnessed the phenomenon first-hand. And so has every artist who wanted to be a perfectionist before practicing the craft itself. True, planning led to novel ideas, ridiculous teammate combinations for tasks, and larger labors of love that pushed the silent ones out of their shells. But without execution, they’d have remained points on an app. Sometimes it takes courage to toss darts into the dark.
3. (Feasible) Deadlines are your best friend
A cursory glance at the 50 articles (up from about three dozen last year) never fails to fill me with pride. Some of those articles had deadlines of a few hours. Movie reviews nabbed the most eyeballs shortly after launch after all. And some pieces took months to ideate, shape, and pen down. In both cases, the presence of a deadline stirred writers into action. And while the bigger pieces never had a solid timeframe to work with, I’m happy to report that the senior members in my team ensured that those labors of love did not remain drafts.
4. Own up to your faults (and those of your team)
I wasn’t the charismatic leader who could toss out riveting speeches in a jiffy. But what I did do was support my team as they went from strength to strength. We worked on tight deadlines when it came to delivering content for other teams. Website content, press releases, the whole bit. And when a deadline was too tight for a junior to handle, the seniors would step in to get things done. In the rare event that we didn’t deliver (or if the deadline was absurd), I’d take the heat.
5. Be assertive (firm yet compassionate)
This point is something I could have done better but I’m still counting it as a win. Instead of striking a balance between being nice and getting things done, I leaned towards the former. In a desperate bid to get writers on their feet, I used to get senior members to pester them occasionally with reminders. A company’s campus-to-corpo program made me realize that I was using the “broken record” form of assertive communication. By stating the magnitude of the contribution and the impending deadline (flexible, of course), I ended up drastically boosting my team’s work without (hopefully) coming off as a constant nag. And yes, I did keep their mental health in mind while scheduling these “reminders.”
6. Pick your battles but respect every cog in the machine
As a head of one of Festember’s many teams, I served as the medium between my fellow heads and TCF. Matching their content requirements to the feasibility of their deadlines wasn’t always a matter of black or white. While I didn’t back out of every argument that came my way, seeing the bigger picture helped me accept demands and rise to the occasion when necessary.
Things that went right (as a team)
1. Create a safe environment for ideas to surface
This team helped me find people who geeked out over the same stuff as me. It was more than cool with bizarre ideas. Ideation sessions spurred incredible conversations that weren’t necessarily productive. But they did help people shed their masks and form a two-way bridge for constructive feedback. No idea was too outlandish. As long as it was feasible, it was (usually) possible.
2. Frame tasks as learning problems and not execution ones
Creative work is more than mere labor. And in a team devoted to penning evocative stories, labors of love need time to blossom. Crafting articles is a process where one learns only by doing. While deadlines remain a great way to prod procrastinators forward, they were never enforced at the cost of expressing oneself.
3. Raise the actors by elevating the stage
With smaller tasks like post captions that dangle a tight deadline over your head, it’s easy to stick to the reliable heavy-hitters who deliver work on time. But it’s just as essential to let everyone get an opportunity to hone their writing. Whetting swords over the proverbial grindstone is an essential part of becoming a writer. And every member deserves the same level of care and attention to truly grow. After all, this was the place where misfits fit.
4. Milestones aren’t always tangible
TCF once penned 67 event descriptions in a single day, amidst classes and whatnot. “Speedrunners,” the Festember WebOps head called them. “They interviewed her with such confidence and heck, did they read her book?” asked the Guest Lectures head. “You’ve always wanted to write a book. Now you have,” fondly said a teammate. The emcees managed to control hundreds of party-goers with the power of their voice. Reports and media content were delivered like clockwork. Other heads were consistently in awe at the speed and quality of words we churned out on all cylinders. Countless messages of thanks poured in once the festival was over. Moments like these can’t be tallied, they can only be felt.
5. Sometimes you gotta push someone into a pool
Asking someone to step out of their comfort zone is no small feat. But when push comes to shove, some writers display remarkable signs of growth. Sometimes it takes a little prodding before a child can test their abilities. All it takes is a task and a self-set deadline. And no, overworking and crunch are off the table.
6. Faith and trust work wonders
While I did have some difficulty with this, I was eventually able to let go of my overthinking and hand over the reins. Delegating tasks to seniors empowered them and made them feel like they really had their skin in the game. The same display of confidence, in turn, boosted the newcomers’ morale, giving them the faith that this team is one where countless possibilities come to life. Over the course of the festival, I did little more than ferry messages between teams and take in the ambience. After being an organizer for years, I was once more transported to who I was when I entered college: a visitor.
Some of these are possibly conventional wisdoms wrapped in teenage dreams. But these words don’t mean much unless you lead a team and see what the fuss is about. Success is built on experiences both complicated and unprecedented. In the race to optimize every single action, leaders sometimes forget that there are very real people down in the trenches. Tenets like empathy and sensitivity matter as much as they always have, perhaps even more amidst a pandemic.
Defusing tension and boosting productivity are skills that any leader would want. But giving your teammates space and support to shine is just as important. In 2021, data might reign supreme but emotions play their part too. In the end, it didn’t matter how many articles we penned or the deadlines we surpassed. All that mattered was that a group of individuals became a team, one more than the sum of its parts. Would I go as far as to call it a family? Perhaps.
This is my curtain call.
P. S. — I am forever grateful to Vishnu Deepak and Abhinaya S.B. for granting me the opportunity of leading this bizarre yet absolutely lovely team. And I’d be doing the team a disservice if I didn't recognize those who built the bedrock that we stand upon: Vivek Adithya and Sara M Jacob.
Now that you’ve got through all those walls of text, here’s one more: a dedication to TCF ’19. Here’s to those who sought out fulfillment by writing.
Kavya Muralidharan Vedanjali Polaki Akash Mani Daniel Sujay R Kumaraguruparan R Mithran Jeyashankar Murali Krishna G.s. AviNash SaatviS Shashvat Jayakrishnan Shiva Kanth Sujit Srinivas Rajagopalan Shreyas Thirumalai Vamsi Krishna
Aryaman Yadav Monisha Naman Karn Milan Morais Umar Ali Khan D Rohit Pujan Yadav Sabharinathan Ashwin Shekhar isha jha K Shreyas Mahesh Surya Sridhar Akshaya Subramanian Sunil Jagatheesan Rohinee Phatak Puvada Sreevarsha
And here’s a thank you to the teammates who made TCF ’18 feel like home.
Adhithya Sundar Chinmayi Lanka Divya S Kiran Krishnan Nandini Ranganathan Sharan Deepak Menon Siddarth Arvind Sridhar Tejas Harirajan Radhakrishnan Varshiny Arumugam Venkat S Sandip Nair