Equestrian statue of King Albert I, World War I leader of the Belgians. Horse riding is not a leadership requirement, but it does help. (Photo by me)
Steve Buttry asked the questions. I provide the answers.
What leadership experience do you have? If the answer is “none,” tell me why you would make a good leader.
I can’t remember the exact date, but I can describe the exact moment that I became a leader.
I had recently been named editor of The Plain Dealer’s personal finance and personal tech section (yes, singular). I was blessed to have the smart and talented Miriam Hill as my personal finance writer. The first cover story of my first section as editor was one she’d already been assigned and started working on under my predecessor: a profile of a woman who was a dedicated discount shopper.
Miriam delivered what her previous editor had requested. It was a profile — a single-source profile that quoted the woman boasting about how much she’d saved on one item or another (a coat is the item that sticks in my mind). This was not what her new editor was looking for. I wanted a section that emphasized advice. This would be a mission it would take me several months to fully persuade my entire staff of two to accept.
But the story was in front of me, and I was loathe to order a drastic rewrite since I hadn’t initiated it. But I did ask about those savings: How did Miriam know? Had she seen the receipts? Checked on store prices?
No. And she was flummoxed that I would ask. That wasn’t what the previous editor expected, she said. I gently insisted. She went back — and got the proof; the woman had indeed saved all her receipts. I never again had to ask Miriam to verify facts.
That’s not when I became a leader; that’s when I became a manager. (As a side note, I realized only later that I was doing what the brilliant and talented Jeanne May once did for me. I was trying out for the copy desk at the Detroit Free Press, and I was handed a printout of an obit. I made the light edits that I had become accustomed to making for my then-employer, the Saginaw News, where I dealt mostly with wire copy. I gave the marked-up copy to Jeanne. She brought it back to me covered in red ink. Which would have been terrifying and dismaying, except that she told me something like “The reporters don’t give much attention to these, so when we get an obit, we just consider it our notes.” That simple statement was like turning on a switch inside me — oh, you mean you actually want me to edit copy? I got more stories to tackle. And I got the job.)
I became a leader shortly thereafter. Another Miriam Hill article. I’d edited it and sent it on its way. The paper came out. Miriam read her story (o! mirabile dictu, a reporter who read her stories after she sent them in!) She noticed a graf that I had — rewritten, deleted, something I can’t remember specifically now. I just know I’d made a change, a change she objected to. In retrospect, she had every reason to be angry. The change wasn’t completely necessary, and my edit wasn’t the way she’d have redone it given a chance. But instead of getting angry, she quietly suggested that I should have talked to her before I made the change.
And I paused a brief second and then said, “You’re right.”
That, there — that’s the moment I became a leader. Because that was the moment that something clicked on inside me and I realized, really and sincerely, that I wasn’t just an editor, not just a boss. I was the head of a team. The team wasn’t going to succeed if I tried to drag it behind me. I had to respect them to earn their respect.
That was the moment it clicked for me, but it wasn’t the first time I’d done leader-like things. Saying that I wanted the sections to focus on advice? Leadership includes setting goals and strategy, being able to describe them in understandable terms, and following through. Enforcing standards? Another trait. A leader has to be willing to face up to reluctance. (Another Free Press story: I was working the weekend picture desk, which made me by default the boss of the photography staff — which, that afternoon shift, happened to consist of one person. Something was happening and I went up to photo to ask the photographer to shoot it. Nah, he said, he didn’t think it was worth it. I went back down to the city desk with my tail between my legs. The city desk consisted of one person, too — the sharp and talented Pat Anstett. She asked if the photographer was going out, and I relayed his message. She told me to go back up and send him out. “But,” I said, “he doesn’t want to do it.” Pat looked at me. “That,” she said, “is why they call it ‘work.’ “)
My conversion to leadership was about 17 years ago. I moved on from personal finance/personal tech to leading a team of business journalists as a deputy editor, then (after a detour into a job with a staff of none) into a training gig that included being an evangelist for online journalism, and finally to being Online Editor. In that last job, I technically only had a staff of about 10, but in real ways my staff was the whole newsroom.
Through all of that, I kept trying to get better at being the kind of leader I always wanted to work for: Someone who could tell us where we were going, why, and how we were going to get there. Someone who could give us permission to be our best as well as to fail smartly. Who would celebrate our accomplishments, but also challenge us to be better than we were. Who would respect us and our abilities, while holding us to account when we fell short of our standards. Who would defend us from outsiders, even when we weren’t necessarily right. (Last Freep note: It was drummed into me that a fragile truce had been engineered between the copy editors and the metro reporters. The slot editors and the assistant city editors were the DMZ of this truce. No reporter was to directly confront a copy editor about a story, and vice versa. Some months into my time there, I was put in charge of the copy desk on a Saturday. A reporter went up to one of the rim editors and berated him for changes to her story. Summoning the full majesty of my 24 or so years (the reporter was younger than me, at least) and my position as vacation fill-in weekend senior slot, I summoned the reporter to my side and told her off. I continue to feel good about that, although it did give me a moment’s pause when, some 25 years later, I was sitting at my desk in The Plain Dealer and word came down that we had a new editor. Fortunately, that brief flash of leadership potential on my part must have made a much shallower impression on reporter Susan Goldberg than it did on me.)
Part 1 in this series: How to identify digital people.
Part 2: Digital tools and the journalist.