Leadership Lessons from Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham, renowned publisher of The Washington Post, spent 30 years overseeing and enlarging her media empire. Yet the rigidities of being CEO never discouraged her from the core mission of journalism, and she showed her responsibility by her actions.

The best leaders know that you cannot just talk about priorities; you have to exhibit what you care about by taking action. You can show your priorities in five ways:

  1. 'Personal History' by Katharine Graham (ISBN 0375701044) Get out of the office and into your employees’ ecosystem. Graham spent time in the newsroom each day. Ben Bradlee, the editor Graham hired who directed the paper through the Pentagon Papers and Watergate dramas, said that Graham had “round heels for reporters.” For her, “writing the first draft of history” (journalism) was at the center of her company. Employees felt she recognized their work because she observed it as it happened. In addition, Graham intensified her understanding of jobs in the newsroom by her direct observation, by listening, and by asking questions.
  2. Be proactive in building competence and knowledge. Graham held lunches for reporters in her private dining room, and welcomed experts for briefings. Journalists coveted being invited to these luncheons, which permitted them to deepen their knowledge of both their subject area and their publisher’s mentality. Once Graham brought in a psychologist to discuss personality disorders, notwithstanding the sensitivity she must have felt from her husband’s manic-depression and subsequent suicide. Graham carefully questioned the psychologist, and gave her journalists permission to explore the subject.
  3. Show that you are willing to jump in when needed. Graham built her resources by adding news bureaus worldwide, and boosted editorial budgets and staff, but she always saw herself as an operational part of the team. She would eagerly call in tips she picked up at social occasions and take excellent and extensive notes of speeches. During a violent press operator’s strike, which nearly shut down the paper, Graham lived inside the Post building. She did everything from taking classified ads to stuffing newspapers in bags, getting ink on her designer dresses. She was undeterred, and after the strike, directed the paper to its greatest financial success.
  4. 'Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey' by Robin Gerber (ISBN 1591841046) Stand up for your employees. One Sunday afternoon Graham heard that the Chinese government ransacked the room of one of her foreign correspondents and held the woman for questioning. Graham did not pick up the telephone or ask for a letter of protest to be written. She put on her heels and single strand of pearls and drove to the Chinese embassy, marching up to the door and insisting on a justification. Her actions were not lost on her reporters.
  5. Follow your core convictions—even in small matters. In writing about Katharine Graham, Robin Gerber tried to get an interview with Warren Buffett, who had been Graham’s friend and mentor. In a final attempt, she sent Buffett the draft manuscript with a note saying that she hoped he enjoyed it. Two weeks later, he called her and talked about Graham, her leadership, and his relationship with her. He told Gerber about an occurrence he felt she had gotten wrong and gave her a quote for the book cover. Why did the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway take time to talk to Gerber? He could have dictated a note about the error, or asked his assistant to call. It is because the legacy of his friend is important to him. Devotion to relationships, identifying outstanding CEOs, and sticking with them has been a characteristic of Buffett’s success.

Leaders show their priorities through their actions. Think about how you are connecting to your staff through what you do, rather than through what you say. Make your actions fit your company’s mission and others will follow your lead.

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