Recently, I stumbled upon the video clipping of Stephen Spielberg’s movie The Post…the world knows; Meryl Streep broke her own Oscar record. The actress received her 21st Academy Award nomination, in the best actress category, for her performance as Katherine Graham in the legendary movie ‘The Post’.
The movie depicts Katharine Graham’s - the accidental CEO of the Washington Post - historic and risky legal battle to publish the Pentagon Papers.
How the publication of a set of secret government documents changed American history forever…here is what the trailblazer was like in real life…
In June 1971, the New York Times began to publish classified defense department documents-an unprecedented editorial courage. Most commonly known as the Pentagon Papers. They were a secret account of America's serious involvement in the Vietnam War for almost three decades starting 1955 when Catholic nationalist Ngo Dinh emerged as the leader of South Vietnam, with US backing.
The Times ran these stories for two days until the Nixon administration stepped in to block the paper through temporary court order. In fact, it was for the first time in American history, the Government sought barring a newspaper from publishing a news article not so favorable to them.
Katharine Graham and her team wrestled with the decision to pick up where the Times left off. She knew well that at stake was an expensive legal battle, as well as several of the company's lucrative television licenses, if convicted under espionage laws.
In spite of getting several threats, she did not flinch. To the surprise of everyone, she moved forward and never looked back…she kept the nation's interest as top priority of her newspaper.
Eventually, The Washington Post published the gripping story behind the 1971 infamous Pentagon Papers leak, which revealed a massive US government cover-up…spanning four presidents and three decades - a decision about which Graham had a final say. Frightened and tense, she (Graham) took a big gulp and said, “Go ahead, go ahead, and go ahead. Let us go. Let us publish.”
They revealed to the public the workings of the US government that led to the Vietnam War (November 1955 – April 1995) which resulted in heavy casualties to Vietnamese civilians and the US combat forces.
Just a few hours after that first story broke, the Washington Post was asked to stop printing classified information by the Attorney General's office. Alongside the New York Times, Graham, with her unwavering resolve, fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court—and finally to win!
Now, let us change the gear and refer to ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins and read about the Level 5 Leadership keeping in view the role of Katharine Graham in making Pentagon secrets public in the interest of America and the citizens.
Jim Collins has said the following to explain Level 5 Leadership –
Level 5 leaders build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of ‘personal humility and professional will’. Further, they are ambitious, to be sure, but first and foremost for the company and not for themselves.
Let us read the story of Katharine Graham…in the context of Level 5 Leadership…
Katherine Graham never expected to be heading The Washington Post, though she was born into the family that owned the paper. In June of 1933, when Graham was 16, her father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post at an auction. Later her husband, Philip Graham, took over the Post when Meyer stepped away.
Quite unfortunately, Phil Graham's tenure as the Post's publisher came to an end in 1963 when he committed suicide. Traumatized and shaken by her husband's death and unsure of her capability as a stay-home mother to run the Washington Post, Katherine Graham had a difficult decision to make – to sell the newspaper or run it herself.
Also there were rumors all over Washington that Katherine Graham would sell the newspaper. But deep down, she wanted to run it.
Without losing the sight of long term purpose, she informed the board that the company will not be sold and she will take the stewardship. Soon, she turned into a publisher, chairman of Washington Post and eventually, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company in America. Under her tenure, the company grew, prospered and went public... and also earned the investment of Warren Buffett.
The editorial world knows that Katherine Graham never credited herself much with the success of the newspaper...her humility was well known. But of course, she did choose something extraordinary…that is ‘courage’ to lead with a purpose.
Courage, it is said, is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act in its presence. By that definition, said Jim Collins, “Katharine Graham may be the most courageous CEO on the list of Level 5 Leadership.”
In 1970, her son Donald succeeded her and she remained the chairperson of the board until 1993.
Within a one year of the reporting of the Watergate story, a burglary and illegal wiretapping at a Washington DC Headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in June 1972 grew into a wide-ranging political scandal.
The Washington post published an article on this scandal which was written by relatively undistinguished young reporters. And finally, it culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Katherine Graham, after taking over as a CEO, had laid the foundation and ingrained corporate values in the new Washington Post in 1971 by showing her resolve to bring the truth to the public…to keep America transparent!
The good news is that “Level 5 leaders exist all around us, if we just know what to look for, and that many people have the potential to evolve into Level 5.” Said Jim Collins in the concluding part of his book ‘Good to Great”.