demanding, but fair

I write for a business newsletter, Smart Business Matters, about all things business. That, in addition to years in the business world, made me even more attune to the leadership “buzz word” that came up time and again when coworkers spoke about Walter Cronkite. I couldn’t help but think, as I listened to commentary on Walter Cronkite, how much I had taken for granted growing up with him on the nightly news, telling us the way things were. I knew he was a great newsman, and I certainly shared his enthusiasm for space travel. Glued to that TV set, I was, when the Eagle landed 40 years ago.

But this weekend I came to realize more fully what a real impact he had on the television news industry and how fine his leadership skills must have been. As Morley Safer put it, Cronkite was “Demanding, but fair.” Since the above mentioned newsletter has a little bit of an international subscription, it wasn’t the best place for the article I wrote this weekend, so I thought I’d post it here instead.

Demanding, but fair. How many times have you heard that phrase uttered, often with a note of respect and pride, by employees about their bosses? Wouldn’t it be great if more employees had that type of leadership? Every manager can take a few leadership cures from “Uncle Walter” who has been referred to often as “the most trusted man in America.”

Leaders are passionate about their work. First and foremost, Cronkite was passionate about his work, and he never lost site of the fact that his work was, as it has been said countless times by many, to report the news, not be the news. Leaders love what they do and are driven to learn how to do it better. Their love for the job often shows in their work ethic and in the standards they set for themselves and others.

Leaders are team players. Cronkite managed and led a team of field reporters who respected him because he supported them. He has been referred to as “a reporter’s best friend” by newswoman Katie Couric. He never forgot what efforts others had to go through to get the news “right, fast, and first.” Leaders guide and support their team, knowledgeable about what hurdles their team has to face to get the job done and helpful in clearing those hurdles.

Leaders communicate. Cronkite set the standards for television news and his field reporters knew what those standards were. He demanded the best, but was quick to heap praise when his correspondents delivered. Newswoman Lesley Stahl said, “We wanted to please Walter. When he was happy, we were happy. When he was unhappy, we heard it.” Leaders communicate their standards to their team, challenging themselves and their team to do better. They let their team know when they’ve got it wrong, and praise, praise, praise, when their team gets it right.

Leaders set the tone. “A leader sets the tone,” said newsman Bob Schieffer. “And Walter always set the right tone. He set the right standards and set the right enthusiasm.” Leaders who are focused on the next task and goal, always striving to improve, approach their work with enthusiasm, communicate their standards, support their staff, and create a cooperative work environment which provides a model for everyone else to emulate.

Leaders listen and question. Cronkite listened to everyone, from Presidents to the people, and was determined to get first-hand information. He always had another question about the information he received in an effort to better understand the news, and often revised his delivery to accommodate last minute updates. Leaders listen to what others tell them, weigh the information they receive carefully and ask questions, and often implement the recommendations of others to improve themselves and the quality of their work.

Leaders take on new challenges. Walter Cronkite became a television reporter at a time when television reporters were considered “showy” and inferior to radio and print reporters. He was able to get in on the ground floor of an industry and shape that industry for the better. Leaders look past the conventions of the day, see opportunities where others see limitations, and move forward to embrace new challenges and technologies.

Leaders never lose their sense of humility and humor. As serious as he was about his work, those that knew him spoke often of his humble nature and sense of humor. Speaking of his first time behind the camera, Cronkite once said, “I just fell into whatever I do naturally. I never took any elocution lessons, no diction lessons. I might have been a pretty decent broadcaster if I had. But what you see, I’m afraid, is what you get.”

What the world saw and what the world got was pretty darned good, wouldn’t you say?