Leadership is All About Learning

For many years, I resisted entreaties to apply for managerial roles in the places where I worked. Management, as best as I could tell, was all about telling people what to do. Whether it made sense or not.

That’s the way I grew up. My father was a successful manager. He told people what to do at work, and they were highly productive. He told us what to do at home, and we were expected to produce expected results.

Whether it made sense or not.

So this is the impression of management I carried to my working life, and I was not disappointed. I worked for many who told me exactly what to do.

Whether it made sense or not.

So when my managers came to me early on with suggestions that I had management potential, I recoiled. First of all, I was a newspaper reporter, and as best as I could tell from the newspaper managers who managed me there was nothing about a reporter’s talents that translated directly into a good manager’s talents — just as a great schoolteacher isn’t necessarily a great principal. (Did I mention that I counted a lot of principals among that class who continually told me what to do? Whether it made sense or not?)

My most memorable encounter with management recruiting came from a session in Michigan, where I worked as a young reporter for a state chain of mediocre newspapers. They saw management potential in me, they said, so they sent me to Ann Arbor, corporate headquarters, for some testing. This included — and I suppose I am grateful for this experience — a session on a couch where a psychiatrist asked me about my earliest memories of my mother. It was my Rorschach Test, however, which really got my corporate shrink’s attention. He asked me what a certain ink blot looked like. There was no question in my mind: “A dead Viking in the snow.” Hmm, he said, he’d never heard that one. That apparently was the end of my testing.

I reported my way out of Michigan, thankfully, only to attend a morning job interview at a then-great newspaper in Miami, where the screeners advised me that the first thing I’d need to do was take a personality test. I’d flown in to town before dawn and had little sleep, and seriously considered walking out. Instead, I took the test, which asked such things as whether I’d rather lie in a gutter and let the world roll over me or take charge of affairs on a rooftop. I figured out the answer. I suppose, even then, they were scouting for management potential. I got the job — a great reporter’s job.

During my many years of reporting for the Herald, I had several invitations to join the management track. I resisted each of these invitations. I once asked the managing editor, who I greatly admired, if he was having as much fun in management as he’d had reporting. No, he said, he wasn’t.

The irony of all this is that he handed me the authority, at the tender age of 30, to manage their state capital bureau, a rather small office at the time.

They insisted that they add this to my byline: “Capital Bureau Chief” — because, as one of my managers explained, this would motivate me when I saw it in the morning to achieve greater things. So I was a chief with one, well, you know… and that made me the manager. As time went by, my little bureau grew to include six people, and I became a chief with a tribe. For the most part, though, I trusted the people with whom I worked to do what they needed to do, without needing to be told what to do. That was my first experience with what would eventually define my style of leadership. Until someone who arrived who wasn’t doing what was supposed be done, and that’s when my dearth of actual management skills was exposed.

Fast forward through a couple more great jobs in Florida and then Washington, where I arrived to cover the White House for the Chicago Tribune and was exposed to some leaders who actually knew how to lead. They had respect for the people they led, and listened to them. Yes, there were some who told you what they expected you to write — and I surprised several editors (managers) one night at a wine-soaked dinner with the question: “Why do you sit around in meetings and decide what stories should say?” An old reporter, who’d heard of my transgression the next morning, told me: “You’re my hero.” Then, there were people who did not tell people what to do, but rather encouraged them to do what was best. There was one, in particular — and you know who you are — who taught me more about leadership in a few years than I had learned in much of my life. I experienced some of my best moments as a reporter, free to report.

So when another job offer arrived, with a description that involved actually managing about 50 people, I had to ask myself if was really ready for this. I sat down and drew up a list. On one side of the ledger: All of the worst things the worst managers in my experience had ever done. On the other side: All the attributes of the best leaders for whom I’d worked. I made a silent vow to myself — to eschew absolutely every trait of the worst managers, and to emulate as much as possible the qualities of the best.

I’m not sure if I succeeded at this or not. But as I assumed that role I found myself listening more than I was talking — listening to the concerns of the people I was leading, attempting to help them through issues professional and personal alike, and praising people who simply needed no direction.

I still had managers telling me what to do — whether it made sense or not. It was the most dictatorial place where I’d ever worked, with no regard or respect for individual opinion. The day I’ll never forget: The senior editor’s order to slap a politically biased headline on a story. Every ranking editor in our office, and I as well, argued against it. We were all overruled — only to be deluged with a hellfire of email the next morning asking how we could run such a biased headline. I couldn’t bring myself to reply: My boss made me do it. For the most part, I did my best to subvert the worst of the ill-considered direction that flowed our way. That left me with little surprise the day of my eventual lay-off — my problem, I’m convinced, is that I cared more about the people working for me than the people for whom I worked.

At the age of 60, my first cast-off in more than 30 years of reporting and occasional leadership led to a period of serious self-doubt. I had developed a considerable resume: Capital Bureau Chief, White House Correspondent, Government Team Leader, several presidential campaigns under my belt — and had some “clips” to prove my worth as a writer. I’d even adapted to the internet — competing online as ferociously as I had in print. Yet during a series of interviews for appropriate positions, I made it to final rounds only to see someone else hired. In some cases, I suspected a simple explanation of age discrimination. Which, of course, made failure more acceptable. I was starting to conclude, as I found hot-and-cold work in freelance writing and editing, that I had been involuntarily retired at an early age.

And then came a serious job offer. My seventh full-time engagement in 40 years of journalism — as a manager. I considered, for a moment, the irony of accepting something I’d spent a lot of my career avoiding. But this job was a really good one — developing and leading an online portal of state rankings and reporting around the country for a national enterprise, U.S. News.

This time, I didn’t have to stop and tell myself anything about what’s needed. And this time, I found something extraordinarily refreshing: People who seemed to intuitively understand the difference between leadership and management. People who displayed respect for people around them.

The other night, I offered during a conversation about a certain question in dispute that I’d be happy to follow the leadership’s direction on it. I was told by the leader: “You’re the leadership.” Trust is a priceless commodity.

If the seventh really is a charm, this posting feels like one.

Leadership, really, is about listening to the people all around you.

Whether they make sense or not.