04/10/2015 03:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

David Laventhol, Moses, and Newspaper People Wandering in the Wilderness

I read David Laventhol's obituary today and recalled a conversation I had with him 25+ years ago when he was publisher of the Times and president of Times Mirror. At the time, I was the manager of training and organizational development for the newspaper. Laventhol was new to the Times but not new to Times Mirror. He and I were having lunch to talk about the culture and future of the company. In our conversation, I used the biblical story of Exodus to describe how organizations change. "And you are Moses," I told Laventhol. He looked surprised and laughed -- but I wasn't joking. Everyone knew that the LA Times needed to change if it was going to meet the challenges of the future, and we wanted Laventhol to be our change agent.

Moses had an important job to do -- liberating his people from Egypt and leading them to the Promised Land. It sounds simple but it wasn't easy. For, as you'll recall, the Israelites didn't go straight from Egypt to the Promised Land -- they wandered in the desert for 40 years before arriving at their destination. And what Moses didn't discover until well into his journey was that he actually had TWO jobs: to get the people out of Egypt... and to get Egypt out of the people (which was actually the harder of the two jobs). His people's traditional habits, old ways of thinking, assumptions, values, and culture all had to be transformed before they could establish a new culture in The Promised Land. An old generation literally had to die off in the desert while a new generation was born.

The newspaper business was just entering the wilderness when Laventhol took over as LA Times publisher. It is still in the wilderness today. Newspaper people are going through the predictable stages of organizational change while experiencing the normal feelings that accompany such change. There are five stages to the process: (1) denial, (2) upset, anger, betrayal, frustration, attempts to hold on to old, familiar ways, (3) acceptance, hitting bottom, giving up the old, (4) exploration and experimentation, tentatively moving forward into the unknown, and finally, (5) new commitment, fully embracing a new reality, participating with creativity, vigor, and enthusiasm.

Newspaper people are behaving much like the Israelites in the desert -- complaining, criticizing their leaders, taking potshots at technology because it's a convenient target, creating false idols, and floundering around in confusion, anger, and resentment at the predicament in which they find themselves, while wishing they could go back to good ole days in Egypt because at least it was predictable, safe, and familiar (even if you did have to worship Pharaoh).

The first step in dealing with such enormous changes is to understand the process -- once you know the stages, it's at least a little bit reassuring to know that there is a beginning, middle, and an end. Second, understand that your emotional reactions, and those of your colleagues, are normal. You would be weird if you didn't feel sadness, loss, grief, anger, confusion, and betrayal. Third, extend compassion, patience, and understanding to those who are handling the change badly. Different people have varying capacities for going through the stages of change -- some move through the stages quickly with minimal pain, but many more suffer enormously. Some people get stuck at one stage or another and never make it to the fourth and fifth stages of change.

Newspaper leaders, you bear a special responsibility to shepherd your people through the wilderness with skill, courage, vision, and all the leadership energy you can muster. While David Laventhol was the first in a series of Moses change agents who tried over the past three decades to lead the LA Times out of the wilderness, you are the Moses of your own media company today. Your job is to free your people from the old newspaper paradigm and lead them to a Promised Land that no one can describe, much less point out on a map. Gird your loins, for your journey through the wilderness may very well last 40 years or more. Be understanding and compassionate -- your people are in pain and they will criticize you, question you, berate you, and perhaps even revile you. Forgive them. Love them and care for them - they need good care and feeding on their arduous journey.

And remember, Moses was a change leader -- he didn't make it to the Promised Land himself. His job was to get his people there. So is yours.


BJ Gallagher is coauthor of a best-selling book about the LA Times and organizational change: "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins: A Fable About Creativity and Courage" (Berrett-Koehler); the new 20th anniversary edition was published in January 2015.