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Watch “Spotlight” to See an Understated Leader in Action

The headline says it all. “I’m in ‘Spotlight’ but it’s not really about me. It’s about the power of journalism.” Marty Baron, currently the editor of the Washington Post, was at the helm of the Boston Globe when they uncovered the Catholic Church sexual abuse story. Here is the link to Marty’s article about his experiences as the editor and making this movie.

I met Marty when he first came to Boston to lead the newsroom. At that time I was a consultant for the company. We made an easy and quick connection. Eventually I spent four years as the head of Human Resources at the Boston Globe and had the privilege to be one of Marty’s colleagues. Since he has gone public with his story in his column I now feel free to make some additional observations here.

By far, the most searched posts on my blog are the ones about understated leaders. There is a hunger for smart, lower ego, eye on the greater good, fair minded leaders these days. Marty has long been my Exhibit A. If you watch the movie or read Marty’s column you will get some glimpses at what I am talking about. But let me fill in some details to give all of you some guidance about how to nurture these aspects in yourself.

It is not about erasing your ego. It’s how you manage it. No one, including Marty, would say that he has no ego. There were many moments when it was on full display. But on the overall he demonstrated control. His language was less about I, I, I and much more about the journalism/the work. Even in the most heated conversations there was no doubt that Marty was upholding high standards for the enterprise rather than looking to feather his own cap.

Understated leaders pick their battles. As Spotlight depicts so well, pressing forward on exposing the Catholic Church took courage, persistence and an unwavering moral compass. Granted, most leaders don’t face such consequential decisions on a daily basis but there is a valuable lesson here. In the grand scheme of things, where ought a leader focus? You can charge into battle on a million things every day. But is that advancing the business objectives? Leaders who spend too much time in combat are missing the big picture, are too wrapped up in themselves and everyone has battle fatigue. Marty was a master at knowing when to push and when to yield.

See the forest for the trees. Pay attention to the back and forth between Marty and the dogged journalists as the story was unfolding. The Spotlight team had uncovered (anew) evidence of sexual abuse by priests in Boston. They wanted to expose this handful of violators. Marty repeatedly sent them back to keep digging for a fuller picture. He was focused on the institutional and systemic cover up rather than the individuals. He wasn’t sure what they would find but his instincts, experience, skills and (again) moral compass superseded the push for a splashy headline in tomorrow’s paper. He didn’t go for the small and early win. This is a common mistake leaders make; they are impatient to show quarterly results so they stop short of making bigger gains. Understated leaders have a good sense of the higher order issue and enough patience to hang in there to get the gold.

Trust and respect need to be earned. Duh, I know. But I want you to see what it looks like in action. As a new leader, Marty did many of the right things. He read the landscape of Boston and the Globe with curiosity and accuracy. (read his piece to learn more about this) He reached out early to key people at the paper and in the community. He asked questions, learned and offered respect. He didn’t show too many cards early on. (again, read his piece) This allowed for a more “wait and see” approach from the staff. His supervision of the Spotlight editors was a mix of trust, pushing for more, sitting back and gathering support for their work (sic. lawyers and resources). My point here is that Marty walked into an interesting situation that could have gone horribly wrong for him and the newsroom. He could have barked orders, presumed too much, positioned himself as the winner of the new editor contest and a zillion other normal mistakes new leaders make. Instead he played it close to the vest, lower key and respectful. The unfolding of the Catholic Church story and 9/11 and anthrax within his first six months required objectivity, steadiness, good judgment and urgency. His actions garnered a huge amount of trust within the newsroom.

Set high standards and expect people to meet them. All leaders will address this issue but in understated leaders it manifests differently. It is up close and personal rather through canned and required processes. Staff have easy access to these leaders for ongoing conversations. They have open doors so you can drop in, they wander into people’s offices, their calendars aren’t always crammed, they answer emails. Marty was a tough-but-fair editor and, as he remarks, was known for his “joyless pursuit of excellence”. (PS. In time, it wasn’t so joyless.) He took chances on less tested talent, gave expanded opportunities to hidden gems and moved people around to get the best out of as many people as possible. He resisted using goal setting and performance review tools as a way to assess progress and success. As the HR person who had to persuade him to comply, I came around to Marty’s perspective.

There is no uniform style profile for an understated leader. The only trait I can say most of these leaders share is that they are more introverted than not. Beyond that they come in all shapes and sizes. Rather than trying to hitch your wagon to someone with a specific manner or changing your own spots, I recommend focusing on the cluster of habits I have described here. One of the other oft-repeated lines about Marty was that he wasn’t particularly warm and fuzzy. To which his response was, “I may not be warm but I am fuzzy” as in “I have a beard”. I’ve witnessed other understated leaders who were nurturing or painfully shy or long winded or exceptionally detailed. These are simply character traits that are more the wrapping paper rather than the present. Don’t focus on the superficial. Pay attention to the substance.

Watch the movie. There has been very little Hollywood treatment so you can trust the portrayals of the people involved. Pay attention to Walter Robinson (Robby) as well. He is another terrific example of an understated leader. He picked his battles, trusted his people, struggled with his own demons to stay the course of where the story was leading, remained very humble and pursued excellence. I couldn’t be more thrilled that the movie won the best picture Oscar. Not just because it was a great movie. But because there is so much for all of us to learn, honor and try to carry forward.

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