January 20, 2017

It won’t be long now. Today, Donald Trump becomes “leader of the free world.”

Might even be a tougher job than running a staff of journalists.

It’s a situation that got me wondering: Should I be studying the President-elect’s approach to leadership? Could his style help the women and men who manage newsrooms and other staffs be more effective?

The answer, I think, is mostly no.

I shy away from bombast and self-promotion, believe in telling the truth, admit my mistakes and much prefer gathering facts to simply acting on my instincts.

But I also believe your success as a leader requires you to really know your audience, whether it’s the community you serve or the staff you’re trying to lead. And Trump rode an understanding of his audience to a most unexpected victory.

So here are a handful of leadership tactics that the President-elect’s style left me thinking about — and how they might or might not contribute to your effectiveness.

Start with the target: Your intended audience. As the leader of a newsroom staff, you are responsible for two audiences: the one for whom you produce journalism everyday, and the staff you rely upon to produce that journalism.

Eventually, you need to win over both. But in order to successfully produce the journalism, you first must win over the staff that will produce it.

That requires you get to know them — perhaps better than you do.

But what do you need to know?

First get to know them as a group. Start with their history. Who was the boss before you? Their experience with that person likely will affect their response to you and your ideas. Was that boss successful? Did she deliver on her promises? Did he communicate well? Was she inaccessible?

The response you are receiving from your staff might have as much, or more, to do with their former boss’s performance than yours. Once you understand what’s behind their response, you can adopt behaviors that help you win their trust — and an openness to your agenda.

But getting to know them as a group is only a first step. If your goal is to help each member of your staff grow as a journalist, you also need to know them individually.

Think about it: Each person on your staff has different aspirations and different needs for fulfilling them. What does each one do well? What do they find challenging? What is their great ambition? How could you help them achieve it?

To be practical, you won’t get to know each staffer well in a meeting or two. It’s a commitment you will carry out over time. But get the conversation started. Everything you learn will help you participate more meaningfully in your staff’s growth.

After all, you can’t give someone what they need unless you know they need it. So ask.

Build passion around big ideas, and then… This is another tactic the President-elect understood. Build a wall. Drain the swamp. Repeal Obamacare on day one and replace it with “something terrific.”

Big ideas, stated simply and repeated endlessly, energized Trump’s supporters with mantras that they could easily share with others. They felt as if they knew what the candidate stood for. And notice: most of the ideas were rooted in his understanding of his audience.

But remember: This is a leadership tactic with a trap door. Because if you promise a big idea, you have to be able to deliver on it.

Don’t you?

Only time will tell whether the new president will keep his more than 280 campaign promises. Throughout the primary and general election campaigns, Trump rarely offered details about how he would achieve his big ideas. Maybe he will deliver. Or maybe he won’t, and his supporters will give him a pass.

But when it comes to your promises, remember: Newsroom staffs keep score.

I’m pretty sure you know that. Which leads me to ask newsroom leaders this question: Does fear that you might not be able to deliver scare you off big ideas?

The best leaders I know are looking for big ideas. They clearly communicate their own, create environments that encourage others to share theirs, and build teams of people who collaborate on execution. They don’t recklessly float big ideas and assume the details can be worked out, but they also don’t cower from bold visions until every last question about execution is answered.

Too many managers let their circumstances limit their vision — we don’t have enough people or money or talent to try that, they say. And no question, recalibrating a newsroom’s ambitions in these times of downsizing is a responsible thing to do.

But why can’t the goal of recalibration — one that reevaluates everything on the newsroom’s current agenda — be to identify bold ideas?

People want to follow leaders who inspire them, who give them reasons to believe that together with you, they can do work that has significant, positive impact. It’s hard to get excited about just getting all the work done everyday.

Big ideas, on the other hand, do inspire. Especially if the staff can see the connection between their work and the idea you’re championing.

Go for it. Let the staff help you figure out how to deliver on your idea’s execution. The staff wants your vision — and they want to help.

Tell the truth. I’ve always believed the most important ingredient in a successful relationship between a manager and a staff is trust.

I might admire your good ideas, and I will obey the stripes on your sleeve. But if you want me to follow you, I need to trust that you are acting in my best interests — not just in yours.

Truth-telling contributes enormously to my decision whether to trust you. I cannot imagine being a journalist and not feeling that way.

But truth-telling these days is going through some tough times. Throughout the campaign, the public ignored or rejected story after story that pointed to candidates’ mischaracterizations, misstatements and outright lies. Candidates, led by Trump himself, denied saying things they had said — even those captured on video — and embraced the popular, if moronic, trend of saying they “disagreed with the facts.” And rare indeed was a candidate’s admission that they made a mistake.

I hope it’s not true that people, despite recent evidence, no longer care if we tell each other the truth. I feel certain that the people on your newsroom staff still care, and that managers pay a price when they fail to be straight with their folks.

They pay a price when they play the blame game and don’t include themselves among those who err. They pay a price when they don’t run corrections and clarifications. They pay a price when, instead of sharing information, they treat the staff’s questions about company policy and business decisions as FOIA requests.

If you want to credibly manage people, especially journalists, you’ve got to fight this trend. Be transparent. Tell the truth.

Be open to feedback. Many great leaders have sizable egos. But the best of them are open to feedback — sometimes critical feedback — that can improve their effectiveness.

The new president makes it clear, tweet by tweet, that criticism is not welcome here. That’s a shame. We all have so much to learn.

I’ve been blessed to work with bosses who made it OK for me to walk into their office and be constructively critical. Maybe I’d ask why they decided to send that staff-wide email that struck me as tone-deaf. Maybe I’d suggest they reconsider their habit of criticizing an editor’s decision in public. Maybe I’d say I thought they shut down participation at a staff meeting by dominating the conversation with their ideas.

How did they make it OK for me to do that?

They responded to my feedback by asking me to sit down and tell them more.

Responding defensively to criticism is a human reflex. It’s understandable. But for a manager who is trying to build an environment of mutual trust with her staff, it’s defeating. It sends the message that you, staffer, can benefit from my feedback, but that I have nothing to learn from yours.

I have nothing to learn. It’s hard to imagine a more arrogant and, on its face, wrongheaded position. Good luck establishing trust with that attitude.

Imagine, instead, the manager who ends every staff review or feedback session by asking the staffer, “How am I doing for you?”

The question itself is powerful. Listening to the answer is smart. Acting on the advice will help you build that atmosphere of mutual trust.

Never stop reporting. The Trump management tactic that troubles me most is his stated disdain for expertise. Of course, he’s not alone. Lots of managers say they “follow their instincts” or “go with their gut.”

Such an approach should be especially troubling for journalists. Reporters who only follow their instincts instead of being open to where the facts take them risk becoming too wedded to their initial hypotheses. They miss stories, they make errors, they invite accusations of bias.

And without fail, they leave readers and viewers who have expertise shaking their heads at work that lacks rigor.

Most journalism managers have seen such work; many (including this one) have produced some of it during our careers. In many cases (including this one), they learned a lesson. The mark of a great journalist — and journalism manager — is the determination to gather as much expertise as possible before I publish or broadcast my work. And then to be open to learning still more afterward, often from the public that consumed my work.

Newsroom managers, why not apply that same discipline to your supervision of your staff? Why presume that because of your instincts or your past experience you know what to do or say in every situation? Why not approach leadership as a reporting exercise, one that calls on you to gather information and insights before you make a decision?

People often tell me their best bosses made quick decisions.

Not mine. My best bosses made good decisions. They knew when they needed to do some reporting first.

Of course, if you believe you have nothing left to learn, you might as well follow your gut.

Your staff, I would suggest, deserves better.

Related Training: Advice for the Newly Named News Director

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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