News Leadership 3.0

December 17, 2009

Six lessons from the Sandy Rowe School of Leadership

“When standing, stand. When sitting, sit. But above all, don’t wobble” and other wisdom from one of journalism’s great leaders

I count Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian, among my closest friends. Along the way, she also has been my boss, my mentor, and the person who most shaped my understanding of leadership.

Sandy leaves The Oregonian next week after more 16 years in Portland and three decades leading newsrooms. Happily, this doesn’t mean she’s leaving journalism or leadership. But it’s an occasion for celebrating the strong, graceful leadership Sandy Rowe exemplifies.

A few of the many lessons:

1. Listen, and listen well.

I remember when Sandy first arrived at The Oregonian in 1993.  She scheduled one-on-one interviews with pretty much everyone in the newsroom staff.  When my turn came, I was struck at how intently she listened. No fidgeting, no looking around or peeking at the clock. Total focus. Eye contact. No speeches. Lots of questions, many of them gently challenging.

I was astonished. A new forty-something editor who had just crossed the continent to take over a flailing, demanding newsroom in a strange town. Total focus. My 15-minute interview turned into an hour-plus conversation.

I left vowing to learn how to listen and focus that well. I’m still working on it, and every time I come up short I revisit that day.

I am not the only person who learned from Sandy. I rarely attend a journalism conference or visit a newsroom when someone doesn’t mention getting a favor from Sandy, having a helpful conversation with her or praising the mentoring she provided.

Sandy changed my view of the role of the leader at its core. She showed me that leadership was mostly about teaching and learning and hardly at all about telling.

2. Let others lead.

In announcing her departure as editor, Sandy told her staff that all the leadership The Oregonian needs for the future is in the newsroom. I think she meant not only an exceptional executive team with Peter Bhatia as the new editor, but the leadership of every journalist on the staff as well.
Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of journalism who worked with Sandy in Portland, says developing others was Sandy’s mission.

“Sandy is one of those rare editors who takes leadership as seriously as she does journalism. She doesn’t just wing it. She studies leadership, thinks about it and is conscious in her practice of it.  She doesn’t cherry-pick the parts of the job she loves, and fob off the parts she doesn’t.  She is a gifted line editor but usually resisted the temptation to take over a story.  She believed it was her job to create a newsroom that best let others do their jobs - not to do it for them.  And she took responsibility for her job, every day and in every action. 

“That’s probably why, in announcing her retirement, she noted that her greatest pride came from building The Oregonian’s staff into one of the finest in the country.  She put her energy into hiring and supporting the best journalists she could, and then in standing behind them as they did the best journalism they could. 

“She often told me that good leadership is selfless; I saw her live that belief again and again - most recently when she decided to leave a newsroom she loves so others could stay.”

3. Make the tough calls. No matter how much the leader listens, she has to make a decision or let someone else decide.

Janet Coats, editor of the Tampa Tribune (also departing the newsroom this month) and another of the legions Sandy has mentored, tells this story about Sandy and decisiveness:

“The best lesson of the many Sandy gave me came as she was departing from Norfolk for Portland. I was a newly minted deputy managing editor then, just 30 years old and in over my head. I inherited Sandy’s desk when she moved, and she taped a note inside the desk drawer. It read: ‘When standing, stand. When sitting, sit. But above all, don’t wobble.’

“That note is still taped inside my desk drawer today, as it has been in Wichita, in Sarasota, at Poynter, finally in Tampa. I have looked at it every day of my professional life, and it has been my mantra through the last 16 years of crazy, fun, difficult, tumultuous days running newsrooms. Know what is important. Be decisive. Don’t wobble. Sandy never, ever wobbled. I don’t know if I could claim the same, but her advice has helped me stand up more times than I can count.”

4. Stand up for readers.

Sandy has served tirelessly on just about every important journalism board you can think of, including chairing the Pulitzer Prize board and the Knight Foundation Journalism Advisory Committee.  As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sandy focused on core journalism values and credibility, among them improving connections with readers.

Deborah Howell, longtime bureau chief of the Newhouse News Service and now a Newhouse consultant, cited Sandy’s leadership in creating the ASNE Credibility Project in the 1990s.

“To me, Sandy’s leadership was national, not just at the O. When she was president of ASNE, she gave a fantastic speech and led the charge for editors to be more responsible, to get closer to readers, for newspapers to be more credible. I think her emphasis on creditability is one of the stars in her crown.  She stressed the importance of accuracy and fairness in everything small to large, that readers care about it all and that journalists cannot ever sluff off. Her convention and that speech and her leadership got editors’ attention and made a difference.”

5. Know your talents and how to use them.

Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, says Sandy has a wide range of talents and knows when to use each.

“She is unparalleled at combining what might seem disparate skills. For example, she’s great at engaging and listening to others, yet just as great at making tough final calls with dispatch. She never forgets the fundamentals, yet leads toward innovation with gusto. And, for all her whip-smart intelligence and her no-nonsense leadership, she is among the warmest and most generous and gracious friends on the planet.”

6. Own the vision.

Sandy has high standards and sets challenging goals. She relentlessly articulates a vision and then helps others figure out how to implement it. In seeking experimentation, she accepts mistakes.

Banasyznski tells this story:

“When I first met Sandy, I noticed a card on her bulletin board. It was a cutout of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion from the “Wizard of Oz.” After working for Sandy for awhile, I realized that she has the ability to see far down the road, past the nasty forest and the winged monkeys and the poppy fields that slow most of us down or make us turn back, and keep her eye on Oz.  She has the self-discipline and sense of purpose that allows her to keep moving forward and not be distracted by the obstacles and unhappiness of the moment as she builds to the future.

“She also has the wisdom to know that no one gets very far alone.  She surrounds herself with smart people and challenges them to be as smart as they can, even when they disagree with her or move beyond her control.

“I expect that kind of leadership is lonely.  Too few leaders have the ability to make the tough decisions and stick with them when they aren’t immediately understood or popular, or when they don’t produce immediate results.  Those leaders often piss people off - but they are the kind who smart people come to trust and want to follow. They are the kind who make a difference that lasts.

Sandy is that kind of leader.”

For all my sadness that she is leaving The Oregonian, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sandy does next. Whatever it is, Sandy Rowe will lead.


I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure life experience degrees bachelors degree he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to associate degree doctorate degree phd degree get the hang of it!

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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