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On the Leadership Beat

At the NACUBO 2012 Annual Meeting in July, journalist and author Bob Woodward will provide an intimate glimpse into what he has learned while reporting from the corridors of power.

By Interview by John Walda, edited by Karla Taylor

*The two incidents took place 40 years ago in Washington, D.C., but their lessons in leadership apply just as well to higher education today.

The first occurred in 1973, when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were pursuing stories that implicated individuals at the highest reaches of the Nixon White House in the Watergate scandals. The administration fought back ferociously, and the newspaper was under fire on several fronts. Post publisher Katharine Graham invited members of the investigative team to lunch in her executive dining room so she could hear firsthand how the coverage was going.

After listening intently, Graham said, "When are we going to learn the full truth of Watergate?"

Woodward and Bernstein had dug deeply enough to know that virtually no one involved had an incentive to tell the truth about a high-level criminal conspiracy. Those in a position to know were being either paid or pressured to remain silent. The answer, Woodward replied, was never.

Graham "looked very pained and stricken, and she said, 'Never? Don't tell me never,'" Woodward recalls. "She said, 'We are going to get to the bottom of this. Use all your resources, all the resources at this newspaper, to find out what happened here.'"

That day Graham demonstrated what Woodward calls "an ideal form of leadership: mind on, hands off." She determined what had to be done and then charged those who were best qualified to go out and do it. The combination of high-level commitment and shoe-leather reporting triggered the probes that sent more than 40 people to jail and led to President Nixon's resignation—and brought the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

"What struck me at the time was her capacity to know fully what business we're in. It's the newspaper business. We just don't print what people allege or spin; we try to get to the bottom of things. Over the decades, I've seen so many people in businesses, or cabinet officers—or even presidents—who didn't fundamentally define for themselves and others what their job was. And, in this case, she knew it fully.

"When you're in a high-risk situation," he says, "that's when you really find out who leads and who leads well."

Woodward learned a different kind of leadership lesson when the investigative team spent countless hours poring over the audiotapes President Nixon made of White House conversations. The discussions inevitably came down to one thing: figuring out how the administration could use the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service as a "reward-punishment system-rewarding Nixon's friends and punishing the people he thought were his enemies," Woodward recalls. "No one ever said, 'Gee, what would be good for the country? What's that next stage of good for a majority of people?' All the talk was about Nixon.

"So the tragedy of Watergate is not just the abuse of power or the crimes. It is the smallness—the absence of defining, in a rigorous way, the high purpose of the office."

Digging for the Truth

Know the mission of your institution. Communicate it clearly and then stand back so the capable people who work for you can carry it out. Realize that the institution exists to serve a greater good, not the narrow interests of those in power.

These principles are as important in colleges and universities as they are in government and journalism. On July 31, Bob Woodward will share his insider's perspective on simple but profound lessons he's learned from powerful leaders when he speaks at the NACUBO 2012 Annual Meeting in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Since the Nixon administration, Woodward's intrepid reporting has filled 16 books, 12 of which were No. 1 national nonfiction bestsellers. Among his subjects have been Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush—and Barack Obama, about whom Woodward published Obama's Wars (Simon and Schuster) in 2010 and is now writing a second book focused on the national economy.

"I did four books on George W. Bush, and I probably interviewed him more than any other journalist," Woodward recalls. "I focused on the Iraq war, which I think is one of his big legacies. I was driving at the question, 'Why did you do this?' You have to get at what's driving the decision maker." At one point, Bush "came alive and said, 'I believe we have a duty to free people.' I thought that key motivating factor was important, though he did not underscore it in public.

"I think it explains a lot of what happened," he says. "My conclusion is that leaders need to make sure there's as little distance as possible between what's really driving them and what they're saying. I think part of leading, particularly at the national level, is being explicit."

Other book topics include the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren Burger; the CIA under William Casey; the Federal Reserve with Alan Greenspan; and even American show business, through John Belushi, the Saturday Night Live comedian who died of a drug overdose.

But the best known of his books is probably still the first, All the President's Men (Simon and Schuster, 1974), the Watergate chronicle coauthored with Bernstein. In the popular 1976 movie version, Woodward was played by Robert Redford to Dustin Hoffman's Carl Bernstein. Woodward and Bernstein are now working with Redford on a two-hour television documentary, "All the President's Men Revisited." Slated to air in 2013 on the Discovery Channel, the documentary will explore how Watergate's legacy changed both journalism and politics.

Many things about Woodward are unchanged since the Watergate years. He continues to persuade world leaders to grant him unprecedented access. (How does he do it? Gen. Colin Powell once observed that Woodward possesses "the disarming voice and manner of a Boy Scout offering to help an old lady cross the street.") When Woodward's reporting breaks news, it often makes the front page of the Washington Post, where he is still on staff as an associate editor.

And he continues his unswerving devotion to a combination of hard work, in-depth interviewing, and determination to be "a force for keeping the government honest," as pundit David Gergen has called him. Woodward says his job is to "dig until you get what is what I call the best attainable version of the truth. There's no absolute version of the truth."

Nevertheless, where and how journalists do their jobs has changed a great deal since the days when Woodward and Bernstein pounded out their stories on typewriters, never imagining the transformations the Internet, Google searches, and Twitter would bring.

"Obviously, the news business is going through a convulsion," Woodward says, noting the collapse of newspaper advertising and plummeting circulation among people accustomed to getting instant information. "There's less in-depth reporting. I think the Internet serves a real purpose, but it's driven by impatience and speed. Tweeting 140 characters gives you a glimpse of things. Most of the things that are important are much more complex." He believes there's a culture in the news business that is driven by the urge to take a polarizing stand or to reinforce opinions the audience already holds—and that objectivity is not highly valued.

"My dark prediction is that we're going to miss some stories that are really important," he says. "People are going to say, where's the news business? And the people who run the news organizations are going to say, we have so much less revenue. Organizations that have money, like Google and Facebook and Apple, are going to have to find some way to get in the content business. I know they don't want to do it"—but the alternative risks stranding an uninformed public.

A Message for Tomorrow's Journalists

Given this assessment, what does Woodward have to say to college students who aspire to careers in journalism?

One thing is to remember that the foundation of good journalism continues to be tireless, old-fashioned interviews with real people. At an April 2012 meeting of the American Society of News Editors, Woodward said that he "came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm" when advanced journalism students at Yale University wrote papers saying that if Watergate happened today, they felt certain they could uncover and then stop the abuses through Google searches and angry tweets and blogs. Writing to the class's instructor, Woodward said, "Your students have what I can only call a heart-stopping overconfidence in the quality of the information on the Internet."

Another message Woodward has for young people is this: If visitors from another planet were to visit Earth for a year and were later asked who held the best jobs in the United States, they would say the journalists.

Whether reporters work in newspaper offices, TV studios, or apartments from which they blog and tweet, Woodward believes, there's a sense of vitality in journalism that just doesn't exist in many other fields. "We're addressing the questions of the day," he says. "It's what is happening, what is new, what we don't know about—the events, the motives, the meaning, the outcome."

Difficult and expensive as it is to do journalism right, Woodward is hopeful that the news business will recover and retain the same deep commitment that Katharine Graham displayed in 1973 to the best attainable version of the truth. So to today's young people, "I would say stick with it—it's vital and important."

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO; KARLA TAYLOR, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business topics for Business Officer.