Lessons from a party conversation
December 7, 2003
No doubt, this is denial. A classic case. I refuse to lump Richard Strong among the “bad” CEOs of America. And no, don’t show me evidence of possible misdeeds. I don’t care. I believe in the guy.
In truth, I do know better than almost anyone that people we like and even presume to know a little are capable of behaving badly. This might be why there may be no greater cynic than your hometown newspaper editor. We see the best and the worst in people.
I met Strong a few years ago at a Christmas Eve party. I knew vaguely that he had started and still ran his own financial services company out of Milwaukee. I figured on a successful mom-and-pop operation, not being an aficionado of the financial world. He knew I edited one of the little local papers.
For no good reason we just hit it off, maybe precisely because our worlds are so different, and before we knew it we were talking about leadership.
No, no, I don’t presume. In my role of trying to herd cats, I just aim to get the best people I can into position to fulfill the potential I see in them, and everyone to take enough ownership in their roles that they work with maximum initiative and their own weight of responsibility.
The ideal is each section editor feels totally responsible for his or her department, each staffer feels the paper hinges on them, and to the extent I wave my arms and guide our path, they don’t even notice. Who needs the conductor when everyone knows their notes and is committed to playing them just so?
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Alas, I grump and can’t help barking now and again when something goes off track. I alone in the newsroom have my own office, that enduring symbol of boss-dom for any outfit. I get to make the truly tough, often-enough unpopular decisions in my little realm. And I’m 100 percent responsible for everything that everyone on the news staff does – and that’s no theory.
We’re just big enough that it would be impossible anyway for me to see and direct everything, and just small enough that I’m in the hands-on fray, too. I make the last call on whether this or that revelation in the Kobe Bryant case will see print, and then I go as hard as I can to get the calendar caught up, as well as some other chores that others are too busy to get to.
I’m not complaining. I signed up knowing that life at a small paper is as challenging as journalism gets for editors. Master this tippy canoe and you can sail anything. That’s how I look at it, correctly or not. Anyway, the work is worthy.
I must have dipped into this well during our conversation. And Strong seemed interested in the subject, as well as in a smalltime editor outlining his kooky “conductor of chaos” theory of newsroom stewardship.
Weeks later, Strong sent me two books that he said explained as well as any his sense of leadership. One was “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young,” made into the popular movie starring Mel Gibson about America’s first big battle in Vietnam. The other was a historical novel about the Spartans fighting to the last man against the Persians at Thermopylae.
I read both and have often thought since about the clues they offer for those of us who take responsibility for organizations and far more significantly, the people in those organizations.
I had no idea that Strong was a star in his world until his name led headlines and his picture played big on the business sections of the major papers over these past couple of weeks.
Seems he got caught up in allegations of extracurricular trades of mutual funds just enough that the New York attorney general has declared an intent to sue him. And now he’s stepping down from the company he founded and of which he still owns 80 percent.
According to The Wall Street Journal, he’s trying to sell his company, his baby, built to a worth of a billion or so, or he may put his stake into a blind trust.
This is tough stuff, and I’m sorry to hear about it. As with the books, I’m sure I’ll mull over the lessons this story might contain, too. Interesting that I find myself putting more stock in a conversation at a party several years ago than in what I’m reading in the papers now.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org