Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down,” a best-seller and a major film, crafted one of the best descriptions of a leader that I have heard in a long time. And he did it in two short sentences.
“Gene Roberts,” Bowden told a group of Knight Fellows at the University of Maryland, “enlarged my own ambitions. He could convince you that you were capable of doing things you never thought you could do.” Bowden worked for Roberts at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Is it any wonder, then, that Roberts is an icon in our business, an editor who brought together a staff at the Inquirer that, as they say in boxing, was one of the best ever, pound-for-pound. An editor whose paper not only served its community well, but opened up the rest of the world for its readers. An editor who saw stories where others didn’t and had the courage to risk going after them.
“One day,” Bowden went on, “I felt somebody standing behind me at my desk and I looked around and it was Gene. ‘Hey,’ he said. Then there was the usual moment of silence in any conversation with Gene. ‘I want you to go chase the rhino,’ he said. ‘And I want you to go where the rhinos are.'”
As Bowden learned, Roberts was talking about the black rhino that was becoming extinct. And so Bowden went off for a month, chased the rhinos, and returned with a bag of wonderful stories.
“Gene allowed you to do the most ambitious stories you could imagine,” Bowden said “He always kept you growing.”
Perhaps you can’t send reporters off to follow rhinos, or to spend months examining the tax codes, or studying how blacks were made to live in South Africa, or the many other masterful projects done at the Inquirer under Roberts’ leadership. In fact, these days, some papers can’t even follow the elephants at the circus, much less travel across the globe in search of quality storytelling.
But it wasn’t his travel budget that made Roberts a leader. It wasn’t the size of his newspaper. Or his staff. It was who he was and, as Bowden and many others have said, how he made you feel better about yourself and made you better because he believed in you. And invested in you.
Jim Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute and former executive editor of the Inquirer, tells how Roberts would never use the word “great” when describing the Inquirer or the staff or stories. It had to do with the fact that he believed you could always improve; you could always build on what you had done.
And you should never be satisfied.
Bowden said it best: “Gene Roberts enlarged my own ambitions.”
I can’t think of a better compliment for a leader… A better description for someone I would want as my editor… A better legacy for a “great” journalist. (Oops, sorry Gene.)