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Katherine Graham—Leading from Within

When you read Katherine Graham's autobiography, you get the feeling that this is a woman who was not certain of her selfhood until very late in life. Make no mistake: Katherine Graham was a giant who took a not very good newspaper and built into one of the nation's most respected, and at the same time created a media empire.

Along the way, she helped bring a president to justice, stood down a tough union, and survived a husband who demeaned her as he sank deeper into a suicidal depression. Underneath her society-bred manners and sweet exterior, Katherine Graham was one tough broad. As publisher of the most influential paper in the world's most influential capital, she was a powerful communicator and a shining example of how to learn to lead. At every step in her public career, the stakes got higher. And each time she rose to the challenge.

Professional Education

When Graham took over the Washington Post in the wake of her husband's suicide in 1963, it was not the powerful institution it would become. It was dowdy, parochial, and, except for its being in the nation's capital, inconsequential. In a way it was a mirror of Graham's self-assessment of her abilities. Although she had been a reporter in her twenties, she certainly was no businessperson. She took the helm out of family duty; her father, Eugene Meyer, had owned the paper, and Graham wanted to keep it in the family.

Despite her role as publisher and owner of the Washington Post Company, Graham was very much a creature of her upbringing. She did as she was taught; she deferred to men: first her father, then her husband, and later the male executives in her own company. She illustrates her naiveté in quotes taken from a Women's Wear Daily profile of her written in 1969, in which she admits, "I guess it's a man's world. . . . [M]en are more able than women at executive work and in certain situations. I think a man would be better at this job I'm in than a woman."[9]

Leadership as Learning

In her autobiography, Graham attributes her success as a publisher and as a businesswoman to men. She extols Ben Bradlee, the crusading editor who stood behind reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate investigation. She also credits his journalistic integrity for helping to make the Post a great newspaper. Graham is warmly laudatory of financier Warren Buffett, who after buying a stake in the Washington Post Company became a sort of financial mentor, helping her to learn the business side of publishing.[10]

Graham's learning process stemmed in part from her ability to listen. She was comfortable with asking questions and integrating lessons into her actions. Complementing her listening was her writing ability, often expressed in letters. For example, she speaks of the letters she and Bradlee exchanged annually; it was their own private feedback on each other's performance. Such letters are a good way to air issues, settle accounts, and give due acknowledgement for success.[11]

Graham's views are not that remarkable. As one of the few high-profile businesswomen of her era, she had no female role models or peers. She was literally a pioneer in her field. What she demonstrated was her willingness to learn from others. She was not threatened by the presence of brilliant people. In fact, she relished their company. And the lessons she learned helped to give her the confidence she needed to become the leader she was capable of becoming. The sum of her collected learnings can be found in her autobiography, Personal History, which subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize.

Leadership Resolve

Inside her company, she also could be tough. Right after Watergate she went toe-to-toe with the pressmen's union, which was resisting modernization efforts. To her the Washington Post was family, and the strike was very painful for her. When rogue elements in the union vandalized the presses, she took it as a personal affront, and it stiffened her resolve. After more than 4 months, during some of which time she was personally vilified by members of the union, the strike was settled. She learned also that "when management . . . forfeits its right to manage, only trouble can result." She resolved to improve "communications within the company."[12 ]With the labor issues settled, the company prospered. In 1991, when she handed the reins of the company to her son, Donald, the company's revenues had grown from $84 million to $1.4 billion.[13]

Leadership under Fire

She had the final say on editorial and publishing decisions. In 1971, when her paper, along with the New York Times, published the Pentagon Papers (government documents about the United States' involvement in Vietnam that were leaked to the public by Daniel Ellsberg), it was her name that was on the injunction brought by the Nixon administration. It was a risky decision, not just because she was going against the administration, but because it coincided with the Washington Post Company's going public. Publicity of this sort would not be helpful. Graham persevered.[14] She quotes Bradlee as saying that it marked a "graduation of the Post into the highest ranks" of news organizations.[15]

Graham's will would be tested a short time later during the Watergate investigation. From the moment of the burglary at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, to President Richard Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1973, it was the Washington Post that led on the story, keeping it alive after Nixon's landslide election in November 1972, when few other papers had any interest. Bradlee, as executive editor, was front and center on the coverage, but Graham supported him. It was important to her. Watergate "was a conspiracy not of greed but of arrogance and fear by men who came to equate their own political well-being with the nation's very survival and security."[16] This is an apt statement about Watergate, and also about any other political scandal in Washington or any other capital.

And it points up the reasons why our nation needs a vigorous and free press as well as strong independent leadership at the helm of such media. Ultimately, as Graham wrote in her autobiography,

The credibility of the press stood the test of time against the credibility of those who spent so much time self-righteously denying their own wrongdoing and assaulting us by assailing our performance and our motives.[17]

Not a bad epitaph for a woman who grew in her role as a leader and used her communications to demonstrate leadership in good times and bad, and in the process served as a good example for others.

[9]Katherine Graham, Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), p. 418.

[10]Ibid., entire work.

[11]Ibid., pp. 458-459.

[12 ]Ibid., pp. 575-576.

[13]Obituary of Katherine Graham, The Economist, July 21, 2001.

[14]Graham, Personal History, pp. 441-459.

[15]Ibid., p. 458.

[16]Ibid., p. 504.

[17]Ibid., p. 508.


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