Leadership 1: Don’t take anything personally

James Breiner
5 min readDec 3, 2023

You’re reading the My News Biz. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.

This is the first of a series about leadership. This skill is difficult to teach. Some of it relies on talent. Leaders aren’t necessarily extroverts. Parents, teachers, bosses all are put into positions of leadership. What can help you become a better leader? Let’s explore.

One of the books that helped me become a more effective leader was recommended by my executive coach, Alan Dobzinski.

After a meeting or two with Alan, he recommended I read “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” by Don Miguel Ruiz. In particular, he recommended the second chapter, titled “Don’t take anything personally.”

“A Toltec Wisdom Book” didn’t seem like a business book.

I am skeptical of self-help books generally. I went to the bookstore near my office and pulled it down from the shelf. The blurbs inside suggested it was a spiritual book rather than a business book. I was even more skeptical.

It seemed the book was about managing relationships rather than managing a business. The author’s biography said Ruiz combined the science he learned as a surgeon with the Mexican folk wisdom he learned from his mother. Hmmph.

A surprising impact

I opened to the recommended chapter, and whammo. The message jumped out at me.

“Nothing other people say or do has anything to do with you,” said author Miguel Ruiz. They are simply describing what they see in the world and how they interpret it.

Even if someone insults you directly, Ruiz said, that insult springs from that person’s problems. If you accept that insult as possibly being true — “your hair always looks terrible” — you’re accepting that person’s own feelings and opinions as your own.

Ruiz wrote, “Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me’. ’’

In a way, this was a liberating idea. I realized that I often got defensive whenever one of the 30 employees of our business newspaper came into my office to call my attention to a problem. On a deep level I viewed it as a criticism of my leadership.

A chance to dig deeper

Gradually I realized that for a boss, having someone call attention to a problem was an opportunity. It was an opportunity to ask questions and find out more about why the person saw a problem. And it was a chance to get to know the person and how they thought about their work and their role in the company.

I used to compliment myself on being an accessible boss. I told our employees, “My door is always open”. And employees did come in with suggestions or problems.

But those open-door sessions often ended in my telling the person some variation of, “We’ve tried that already, and it doesn’t work.” Or, “It’s not in the budget.” Or, “It’s a corporate policy and I can’t do anything about it.”

And I have to confess that their suggestions and complaints had a way of irritating me. I took it as a criticism, as if they were saying, “Why can’t you solve this problem?”

A marketing issue

One example. Our weekly business newspaper had about 50 vending boxes with papers for sale around the downtown. The boxes were our most visible way of advertising our presence in a city with much larger competing media — a dominant daily newspaper as well as television and radio.

In a week, we would sell maybe 30 copies out of the boxes. A pittance, considering our paid subscribers totaled about 9,000. To buy a paper you had to insert exactly six quarters, $1.50. The mechanism sometimes didn’t work.

The boxes generated more complaints from our staff than almost anything else. On a regular basis, a reporter, editor, or salesperson would inform me that a particular box on a particular street corner was filthy or broken.

We paid a distributor to maintain the boxes, which often looked dirty or neglected. But my complaints to the distributor had little or no effect. They had a comfortable monopoly.

They might have helped

And what happened when employees complained to me about this? I took it personally. I got frustrated, sometimes showing my anger, and shut down the conversation.

Much later, I realized that I had made things worse internally by not trying to seek the help of the staff in solving the problem. They might have been ready and willing to do something to help the situation.

Or I might have been more open to seeking their help in finding a more effective marketing vehicle that would have been within our budget.

Or they might have helped me to decide sooner to take the action we ultimately took: we disposed of the problem by taking all the boxes off the street and selling them to the distributor at a pittance.

I could have used this approach on some other problems I faced. Let’s just say that many mistakes were made.

Conclusions and final thoughts

When you work in one of the creative professions — and journalism is certainly one of them — the success of your enterprise depends above all on the skills of the people. They have to innovate constantly to create the products that people desire and are willing to pay for.

Nurturing that creativity — oh, that word “nurturing”; it sounds so squishy — is a big part of the job of a publisher, editor, or whatever title the boss carries. The enterprise depends on that creativity, whether it is for-profit or nonprofit.

Getting better at leading people is a long road. It requires a thick skin, an open mind, and — dare I say it, — a big heart. For some of us, these things don’t come naturally. We need the help of a good book.

By the way, this business of not taking anything personally is useful in your other relationships as well. My wife has often said how grateful she was to my coach for recommending the book.

This post was first published here.

Previously in this newsletter:

Part 1, Handling people problems in a small newsroom

Part 2, Handling people problems in a small newsroom



James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia https://jamesbreiner.substack.com/