Leading Into the Wind: a talk on leadership in challenging times

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a speech presented by Karen Dunlap, former president of The Poynter Institute, at The Centre for Women in Tampa, Fla., on March 27.

This is a 1975 photo of Katharine Graham, left, first woman elected to The Associated Press board of directors, during a board meeting in New York City. (AP Photo)

Mary Barra warmed a seat this week that represented the downside of executive chairs. As General Motors CEO, she was primary spokesperson and target in a Congressional hearing on General Motors’ delay in recalling cars with a flawed ignition system. The ignitions can shut off the engine on drivers in motion and disable air bags.

Barra, who was named chief executive in January after being at GM since age 18, has apologized for the defect that is linked to at least 12 deaths. She said GM will cooperate with government investigations.

Big questions remain about the extent of human loss and corporate misconduct, but in the midst, Barra practices a familiar form of leadership.

She spent her career rising through the ranks at GM and reached the top, as CEO, just in time for what might become one of the biggest smackdowns of a major U.S. company for deceiving customers.

This is what I call “Leading Into the Wind,” a management form familiar to many senior executives, especially those in the news business. Many journalists launched careers driven by the desire to make a difference. They rose in an established, profitable business and reached leadership as almost everything changed.

Let’s define “Leading into the Wind” as taking on the normal challenges of leadership: promote the mission, set the vision, align staff to follow a strategy and achieve goals, help move the right people to the right place, keep the lights and water on and make sure people get paid on time, remind of policies, practices and ethical standards, serve as ambassador and chief cheerleader, provide honest communications AND stand for excellent products and services.

It is doing all that while guiding through gales, often unexpected ones, that rock routines and demand new directions.

Mary Barra fits the category although it isn’t clear what she knew about GM ignition problems.

She also fits another category, one for women selected for leadership just ahead of a crisis. It’s called the Glass Cliff. Some women leaders find themselves promoted through the Glass Ceiling to the Glass Cliff. Slate, described the cliff under the headline, “Condolences, You’re Hired!”

So what do you do when you find yourself Leading Into the Wind? Here are some points I learned as president of Poynter for a decade and what I’ve learned from others. I invite you to join in a conversation by adding any lessons you’ve learned.

Face Forward into the Wind

You are tempted to look back to what seemed like better times, but that’s no way to lead when the winds of change rage. Leadership calls for a commitment to an unknown future drawing on the best of the past, smart colleagues and current findings for wisdom to go forward. I found the need to challenge myself on measured steps forward verses foot-dragging. Leadership means advancing even in harsh and uncertain times.

Move with the Wind

My generation of recent or near retirees isn’t the only one experienced in leading through difficult times. News executives today try to stay ahead of shifts to digital to mobile to wearable devices. Tech company leaders face rapid changes and ever-changing competitors.

Individuals also move with the wind. Jill Geisler, head of Poynter’s Leadership programs and author of “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” said change involves learning and letting go. You see those changes in many lives.

Sheila Johnson’s early education pointed to classical music but she became co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and learned business skills that she used to become an owner of several professional sports teams, founder and owner of Salamander Resorts and a producer of the movie, “The Butler.”

Soledad O’Brien moved from anchoring to starting the production company, Starfish Media Group, to provide content for various media platforms. Jane Pauley captures the spirit of learning and letting go in her new book, “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.”

Stay Faithful to Your Mission

Ida B. Wells is a model of faithfulness to the mission. She was born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862, into the post-slavery era of hope, then repression.

She attended college, became a teacher and raised her younger sibling after her parents died. In her 20s, she was ordered out of the forward section of a segregated train and she refused. She sued the company and won, at least in lower courts.

Wells became editor of Memphis Free Speech and when three of her friends were lynched she urged blacks to leave Memphis. The city daily responded by calling on citizens to retaliate against her. She fled to New York then Chicago and became one of the era’s leading orators against lynching. The title of her memoir captures her mission. It is “Crusader for Justice.”

Clarity of mission inspires us, grounds us as leaders, provides a shared basis to call on others to move forward into the wind.

Step Forward/Take a Stand

One of my favorite pictures is a 1975 image of Katharine Graham heading a table of The Associated Press Board. She was the first woman elected to the board. In the photo, she looks unfazed and comfortable in a room of powerful men.

Graham could have been best known for her dinner parties. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought a failing newspaper called the Washington Post, built it and passed it to Graham’s husband, Phil. Kay Graham knew the purpose and mission of the Post and stepped up when Phil died suddenly even when she wasn’t expected to lead. She took tough stands and guided the Post to some of journalism’s finest moments, including breaking the Watergate story.

I had to step up to say I wanted to be president of Poynter after serving a decade in the number two position of dean. Leading meant taking stands, large and small, sometimes publicly, often in quiet conversations. Leaders have to do their best thinking and take a stand.

Draw on the Winds at Your Back

Facing tough times makes it easy to forget the winds at our back. Andrew Barnes was one of the winds at my back. He was chief executive of Times Publishing Co. and of the (then) St. Petersburg Times. As chairman of the Poynter Board, he led in my selection as president and was always a voice of wisdom. Faith, family, friends and fitness also provide my lifts.

Barra’s task won’t get easier when she completes the hearing. Heavy winds await. I’ve given my steps for Leading into the Wind. How about sharing your advice?

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