Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert: A Blueprint for Boss Behavior

If you’ve been following the news over the weekend, you probably fall into one of two camps: Those who think the sad passing of Tim Russert was perhaps a wee bit over-covered (“Oh, you mean the pope?” asked a newspaper editor I had lunch with on Saturday, who clearly had had more than enough of the same looped footage broadcast from the newsroom televisions) and those who think the world can’t get enough exposure to the examples of what seems to have been a genuinely nice guy who was great at his work and who really shouldn’t have died at age 58. While I totally get my editor friend’s point, I would have to raise my hand and join the latter group.

For a while there I thought I knew the reason why I am riveted to this wall-to-wall eulogy of Russert. I sprang from the Washington world affairs scene, on both the journalism and the government side of things. However, my own foray into Washington journalism was destined to be short. Like another daughter of an undercover CIA operative whom I know – who also happened to get into journalism – we were raised to accept the first answer to our questions as the official response and to probe no further. Fora few years there, I thought my father was a television repairman. "What do you do for work Daddy?" "I work for Zenith." "Oh. Okay."

Had I been old enough to have covered Watergate, a certain press conference would have gone thusly:

“I am not a crook.”

“Oh. Okay.”

So when I graduated from J school (that’s, ahem, journalism), I already pretty much knew my limitations. And so I became a receptionist instead. Good career move, that.

But I still watch the goings on in Washington, especially Washington journalism, to run a gut check now and then to see if there is any lingering regret or homesickness, now that I’m exiled west of the Pecos in the land of coyotes, quail and Kokopelli. Happily, latest returns say no. Still good.

And I’m not alone among the Washington expats. Even Valerie Plame has chosen Santa Fe. I keep hoping to run into her at Whole Foods, catch her eye, and whisper some carefully chosen word that would tell her in an instant, “you and me, we have a lot in common. How’s about a cup of coffee?” But, in fact, we don’t have a lot in common, and if I were ever to run into her, I’d probably say, “Oh Mrs. Plame, I mean Miss Wilson, I mean Valerie, I mean, …you’re my biggest fan!”

So I’m living out my destiny as an employee engagement consultant, spending the weekend watching the Tim Russert coverage, flopped on my bed in the desert in mid-June, cooling off by eating Dreyer’s frozen fruit bars, with exactly 1,864.65 miles between my current life and my past more humid, but better air-conditioned life in the DC area, where Dreyer’s is sold as Edie’s.

I’ve already dismissed any romantic notion that maybe I should have been more energetic as a go-get-em cub reporter. So what’s this continuing fascination with the Tim Russert story? Eventually the truth makes its way to the front of my sugar-soaked brain: Yes we’re hearing all about what a great journalist he was. And most certainly we’re hearing all about what a wonderful son he was and, of course, what an inspiring father he was.

But we’re also hearing about what an amazing coworker and boss he was. Oh….now we’re talking my language! Without even having to sit up, I stretch my fingertips toward the legal pad on the bed next to me, draw it nigh, find a pen in the folds of the cotton sheets, pull the cap off with my teeth and start taking notes based on what I’m hearing.

And what I’m hearing is a blueprint for the kind of leadership attributes that will inspire people to follow your example long after you have moved on.

Cheerleader: Russert called his staff his “dream team.” He made his team “all proud” to be who they are, in the business that they are in, working hard for the cause of information and understanding.

Infectious enthusiasm for his work: In this case, one would say that Russert was enthusiastic about the nation, its political process, and the Fourth Estate, if treated respectfully and respectably, could continue to inform its citizens to make the best decisions for the country’s future. Russert got the calling of his profession.

Authentic: I’m a little worried that authenticity might be used so much now that the word itself might be losing its edge of authenticity. But in Russert’s case, everyone agrees that “what you saw was what you got.” He didn’t bother to hide his boyish enthusiasm for his work and his interviewees. He didn’t try to pretty up a face that was made for radio. I would bet he didn’t even bother reading books on how to have difficult conversations with his subordinates. He might never have given a coffee mug or a mylar balloon in his life as a thank you gift to a staffer. Maybe as a joke (he had been known to give a bobble-head or two) but certainly not because he read in a book somewhere that coffee mugs are a great way to retain talent.

Ambitious for his friends (including the people who worked for him; even his competition): He took the time to teach the people around him, celebrated their opportunities to grow, suggested questions for other reporters to use and claim credit for. His friends, colleagues and competitors universally reminisced this weekend that his generosity of time, insight, information and guidance made them all better and smarter.

Aggressive but civil: Every business is, in some way, a competitive one. And you must be willing to invest some spit and spine in your work to be your most effective. But Russert demonstrated that even in the most bull-dog of all businesses, most of the time you could leave your opponent exposed, but still standing and unbloodied.

Enduring faith in humanity: On Meet the Press this morning, Russert’s executive producer, who had been with him 17 years, since she was an intern, stoically remembered him as saying, “The best exercise for the human heart is to bend down and pick someone up.” Only an enduring faith in humanity would inspire someone to hold in his heart the belief that helping someone in need, in pain, or even in ambition would be worth the effort time and time again.

These are attributes that every people leader should hold in his or her own heart every day as they work with their team and their customers. To be a leader is to require that you must be a genuinely decent human being. Share the glory. Take time to teach. Take time to remind your team that they are players on your dream team – and if they truly aren’t, build a team that does represent your dreams for excellence. You would be making their dreams come true as well.

You may not be a reporter or a television personality. You may or may not be a parent. But if you’re a leader, you can draw from Tim Russert’s examples and enduring reputation to inspire a new level of performance in the way you treat your people, ignite their own passion for their work, and inspire generations to come.

And that would be very boss indeed.