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From Councils to Fellows, We Lead by Example

Tags: Regional Partnerships

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By Jim Morgan, High Country Council Member & General Manager, Colorado Mountain News Media

At a recent meeting of our company’s newsroom leaders we spent the better part of the day listening to folks whose job is mining data explain the best analytical tools for making dispassionate judgments about content for our digital and print products.

Not as dry a subject as you might think actually.  

That focus on analytics likely prompted an editor during the wine-and beer-fueled after-session discussion to wonder out loud if one could develop leaders through metrics; an interesting question and one which until that moment I’d never contemplated. Certainly I’d thought about metrics in judging performance. Like most organizations we possess a measurement mindset and the tools for measuring can seem relentless – daily and monthly financial reports, daily and weekly readership analytics, sales reports, story counts and employee surveys.  The list truly goes on and on and on.

The difference was the question was not about measuring a leader’s performance but using metrics to “develop” a leader. It might have been easy to agree if the question was about developing a leader’s skills. Metrics have a place in developing skills, but the question really goes beyond that.

And it led to another more basic question – are leaders born or made? Among those gathered there was disagreement, although the majority came down clearly on the side of made. (Interestingly, research supports that – one study estimated three quarters made and one quarter born.)

As one editor opined: “Brock Osweiler was born with the God-given ability to throw a football but he’s still a lousy quarterback.” Harsh perhaps but it did make the point. 

There is a desire in our data-laden world to make leadership a science. Growing leaders is challenging work, but my bias is leadership will always be more about art than science and as such using metrics and data to “develop” a leader likely leads one down the wrong path.

Think about someone you know who best exemplifies leadership. What qualities do they possess that brought that person to mind? For me the list includes character, competence, courage, catalyst, creativity, capacity, charisma and even charm – all qualities extraordinarily difficult to measure and just as difficult to develop; although I’d dare say leaders I know work routinely on those qualities.

Back in the spring I shared with several on my management team a link to an article. The headline was 33 Ways to Define Leadership. Here is the link: . The simple question I asked was, “Do you see yourself in these definitions?”

While all 33 had value, the one that stood out noted: “Leadership is influencing others by your character, humility and example. It is recognizable when others follow in word and deed without obligation or coercion.” It was only one of two among the 33 that touched on leading by example.

Whether an editor, a company president, a parent, a teacher or an El Pomar regional council member we lead by example. It is in our actions and not our proclamations we most profoundly influence, for good or ill, those with whom we interact. 

I look at my peers within the High Country Council with a measure of awe as they all in their day-to-day work exemplify leading through action. Conversations spawn ideas and the ideas become plans and the plans become actions – after-school programs, health care initiatives for the young and the old, resources to be called upon at times of crisis. 

It’s not enough for someone in a leadership role to simply say they take something seriously. It has to be demonstrated. If I go back to my list of words which exemplify leadership (And yes for the fun of it I only chose words beginning with the letter “C”), I can point to specific examples of courage, character or creativity.

Under creativity, an afternoon with the El Pomar fellows at Penrose House where they were challenged to find more effective ways to engage councils through the quarterly newsletters not only brought positive changes, but reinforced the dynamic role the fellows play in the organization. 

So as the bar conversation came to an end and we were organizing for dinner, I texted the five editors and general managers I was hosting with an assignment: Come to the meal with shareable stories illustrating leading by example. Their varied stories included what I’d call “big” stories: bringing a newsroom together at a time of tragedy, a suicide; rallying a team when a fire destroyed their office building; unveiling a new product that became an entirely new division ; terminating a long-time employee because they disclosed confidential off-the-record information and lied about it. But also “little” stories: the manager who gives a gift on special occasions; the manager who writes (not emails but actual cards) notes of encouragement and praise; the manager who picks up discarded items and trash that has blown into the parking lot overnight as he walks from his car to the front door.

The stories, big and small, communicated values and beliefs. More importantly, for those who witnessed and lived them, they demonstrated why actions merited admiration and emulation. Conversely, as such conversations go it led to examples of when actions fell short – that the dinner guests could readily provide examples of “do as I say, but not as I do” gave me pause but more importantly fodder upon which to follow up.

Data and analytics and metrics are necessary and we’ll continue to rely on those and other tools in decision-making processes, but they do not provide what is needed in developing and growing effective leaders. Leadership is more art than science and in a setting such as the recent El Pomar annual meeting, again a place where stories were shared, it was evident that those gathered understand the value of leading by example.