Bob Woodward's Wisdom on History and Leadership
There are CNN’s Facts. MSNBC’s Facts. Fox News Facts. And, The Facts.
Recently, we had a unique opportunity to hear Bob Woodward, one of the most celebrated journalists of our time, talk about current affairs and the research behind his bestselling books, including his most recent book, Fear: Trump In The White House.
Woodward, a long-time friend of Sundance founder, activist, and actor, director, producer, Robert Redford, spoke at an author series hosted by the Sundance Resort. Redford’s son-in-law, Eric Schlosser, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, engaged Woodward in a 90-minute interview followed by questions and answers.
Jaded by so much of the demonizing that goes on in the media, we were prepared to hear a left-leaning, disparaging commentary on Trump. Instead, we were treated to a parade of entertaining, behind the scenes stories and sage-like wisdom from Woodward’s research on history and leadership. He has written about nine of the most recent presidents, from Nixon to Trump.
Here are some timeless and timely lessons on leadership from the award-winning journalist:
1. Show up.
Woodward strongly believes that the method matters in getting to the truth. “Reporters need to meet people in person, not over the phone and not in text messages,” he said. “We’re not showing up. We’re sitting around doing our work on the Internet.” Journalists should rely even more on what Woodward called “deep background” reporting.
Woodward called it “Show up and shut up.”
This idea hit him hard when he was being stonewalled by a critical informant while working on his book, Bush At War. The person he wanted to interview was a four-star general.
Woodward asked, “When is the best time to knock on the door of a four-star general?” After a few wild guesses from the audience, he laughed and told us we’d fail in getting the interview.
As it turned out, Woodward had studied this general’s schedule. “Knocking on the door of a four-star general at 8:17 p.m. on a Tuesday worked,” he said. When the general opened the door, he looked at Woodward and asked, “Are you still doing this shit?” Woodward opted to wallow in poker-faced silence. After a very long uncomfortable pause, the general invited him inside; they talked for nearly two hours.
Woodward added that Robert Redford did the same thing when pitching the film, All the President’s Men. At first, Woodward didn’t return Redford’s call. But Redford was tenacious. He showed up. He met Woodward and Carl Bernstein in New York and told them that he wanted to do a movie on them, not the Nixon resignation. What intrigued him about Watergate was the investigative process of the two journalists.
Redford’s instincts were good. A box office hit in 1977, All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Mixing and Best Production Design.
Woodward’s method is consistent with some of the best leaders we know. Consider Ratan Tata, former chairman of India’s highly-respected Tata Group, Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association or three-time world champion, Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants, each of these individuals have an intense level of curiosity and deep-seated interest in their people that compels them to “show up and shut up.”
2. Lean into the awkwardness of silence
In 2014, Former CIA director and Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, told POLITICO, “I would have really liked to recruit [Woodward] for the CIA because he has an extraordinary ability to get otherwise responsible adults to spill [their] guts to him…his ability to get people to talk about stuff they shouldn’t be talking about is extraordinary.”
After two Pulitzer Prizes and 19 bestselling books, Woodward has learned that “the purpose of an interview is not gotcha, is not to catch,” it is to build confidence and trust. “Go to the red hot center of what’s important in somebody’s life,” Woodward said. “Because this is where you get the truth.”
“Everyone has their own version of the truth, but there are facts,” according to Woodward. “CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News each have their facts, and then, there are the facts.” An interview is about making people feel comfortable enough to tell their story so you can get to those facts and build the bigger story.
Woodward described a technique he uses during interviews. He jams one of his fingers over his little finger until it hurts. It reminds him to: “Shut the f*ck up, listen and let the silence suck out the truth.”
3. Keep your cause front of mind
Gene Roberts, the former managing editor of The New York Times, said the research done by Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal, might be “the single greatest reporting effort of all time.”
Woodward described the high-stakes tension of the moment and the incredible stress Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post, and her senior executives were under during Watergate. He said there was tremendous pressure to cave in and let go of the story because Nixon, nick-named the “switchblade president” was known for his take-no-prisoners approach to his opponents.
Woodward remembered sitting across from Katharine Graham and then-managing editor Howard Simons during a lunch. Nervous about the investigation and the legitimacy of Woodward and Bernstein’s sources, Graham was anxious.
“When is the truth going to spill out?” she asked. Woodward responded, “Never.” He and Bernstein doubted that the full story would ever break because the Nixon White House was just too well-versed in closing off the flow of information. He described Graham having a pained, wounded look, “the look you never want to see on your boss’s face.”
With fierce determination, Graham fired back, “Never? Don’t tell me never!”
“This wasn’t a threat,” Woodward said. “It was more of a statement of purpose.” He laughed and said, “I left the meeting a very motivated reporter.”
Essentially referring to how uncomfortable and inconvenient the truth can be, Graham told Woodward, “This is the business we are in.” Encouraged to press on and get to the bottom of the story, Woodward said, “At that moment I knew, ‘the boss gets it.’ She was willing to take the risk and absorb it all herself.”
When the critics are firing arrows at you, and the demons of doubt come calling, it pays to have your purpose—Freedom of the Press—front and center.
Graham’s trust in two young reporters was gutsy and her passion for providing the American people with facts leading to the truth was bigger than whatever fears she had about The Post being “taken out” by the Nixon White House.
4. Mind on hands off
Woodward said he got one of the most important management principles he ever learned from watching Katharine Graham during Watergate. He was surprised at how well she knew the details of the story as it was unfolding.
Passionately in-the-know, but unwilling to meddle, edit or second-guess, Graham made sure Woodward and Bernstein knew they had the full weight of The Washington Post behind them. Then, she encouraged them to dig deeper and raise their game.
“Katharine Graham kept her hands off the news reporting and editing,” Woodward said. “But as important, she kept her mind on it—ferociously.” In this video, on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, the late publisher of The Washington Post, shared some of her thinking at the time of the scandal.
Graham’s network of who’s who in Washington politics was formidable. Whether it was an off-the-record dinner with Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser or playing tennis with the White House counsel, Woodward noted that Graham was always on duty. She often took notes after these meetings, sent them on to Woodward and Bernstein and then, helped them analyze the facts they were getting.
This is what great leaders do. They surround themselves with talented people who are hungry and determined and stay informed enough to know what resources they need, when they should be redirected and when they need encouragement to stay the course. Then, they get out of the way.
5. I have your back.
At Sundance, Woodward said he called Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Washington Post, to forewarn Bezos that Fear: Trump In The White House would likely produce a significant backlash. Bezos’ response was like Katharine Graham’s during Watergate.
Bezos said, “I’ve got your back.”
Of course, Bezos has the benefit of knowing that Woodward’s reporting is authoritative because he has established a reputation for being maniacal about fact-based, data-driven research. The Weekly Standard called Woodward “the best pure reporter of his generation, perhaps ever.”
Whether we are talking about investigative journalism or innovation in business, breakthroughs come from breaking things, including the old rules (not the law), the way we’ve always done it and breaking new ground. We love to exhort leaders with breakthrough thinking, but there is an inherent risk in breaking things. If you are wrong, the consequences can be perilous.
Leaders who want their people to embrace the kind of game-changing initiatives for which Katharine Graham and Jeff Bezos are known must be willing to weigh the risks and then say, “If this goes terribly wrong, I’ve got your back.”
6. Avoid the demon of pomposity.
Woodward shared another profound lesson he gained from Katharine Graham. In the wake of The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage, Richard Nixon resigned, and a Federal Grand Jury indicted seven of his top aides for conspiracy in what became known as The Saturday Night Massacre. Woodward and Bernstein had been vindicated. Graham told the two journalists, “Don’t start thinking too much of yourselves, beware the demon pomposity.”
Woodward described it this way. “You know, that crippling syndrome of self-importance, self-satisfaction and smugness, which overtakes all professions in the media,” he said. “You can see it on television, you can see it in the writings, you can see it certainly in politics. I think you even see the demon of pomposity loose in academic life.”
The lesson applies to business as well. The late, Herb Kelleher, one of the most beloved leaders of our time, consistently warned the people of Southwest Airlines, “never rest on yesterday’s headlines.”
Kelleher said, “Success is never final. It’s not a destination. The minute you think you’ve arrived, it will be gone.” That’s why he constantly challenged people with the motto: “Great today and better tomorrow.”
After 19 bestselling books, four decades of public accolades and an iconic career, like Kelleher, Woodward exudes a confident humility. Even though he has won almost every major award that can be given to a journalist, Katharine Graham’s words are not lost on him. Self-effacing and approachable, he conveys a gentleman-like quality and appears to have escaped the demon of pomposity.
7. Focus on the next stage of good.
After the interview with Eric Schlosser, Woodward took questions from the audience. One person asked for his opinion on the future of the country if Trump is re-elected. In a deflective but wise and thoughtful manner, Woodward said, “The role of the presidency is to take our country to the next stage of good.”
Woodward’s answer reminded us of something we’ve learned in doing our own research. Great leaders dispense hope. They make us realize how good we are. Their faith in us, in what we are capable of achieving, shapes and conditions the entire relationship. Our faith is often a reflex response to their faith in us. Our composure under pressure reflects their calm. Our courage is their courage. We follow them into uncharted territory because their gut instincts and integrity have proven worthy of our trust. We rise to higher levels because their expectations of us say we can.
Hope may not be a strategy, but it is more potent than any antidepressant on the market. In hope, we find the courage to think big, act bold and reach for the next stage of good.
When the Sundance event came to a close, we left with an affirmed appreciation for each of these timeless and timely principles.
In our experience, it’s the gutsy leaders who show up and shut up in the pursuit of truth. It’s the visionary leaders who are driven by a noble, heroic cause that is always top of mind. It’s the collaborative leaders who are hands-off yet minds on and hearts all in. It’s the servant leaders who demand a lot, yet have peoples’ backs regardless of the outcomes. It’s confidence balanced with humility that safeguards leaders from the demon of pomposity. And, most importantly, it’s the transformational leaders who are die-hard committed to dispensing hope and advancing the greater good, in business, politics and life.
Woodward told the audience, “My role as a journalist, is political neutrality. I’ve been called a leftist. I’ve been called somebody on the right, a Republican, a Democrat, and some months ago someone called me an ‘ultra centrist.’ Whatever that means, I’ll accept it.”
Here’s a parting idea. What would happen if Woodward, with some of the titans of industry, created a news channel committed to discovering the truth, solely based on the facts? Not facts as are currently reported on MSNBC, Fox or CNN, but a truth that is grounded in the kind of rigorous, data-driven research Woodward has been committed to his whole career. What if this new channel trained up a critical mass of journalists equipped for and unwavering in their commitment to deep background reporting?
Right now, the letters ABJ might not mean anything to you, but they will soon. ABJ is the nick-name for the newly-unnamed Haven Health, the independent company formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase to disrupt healthcare. If this project succeeds, it has the potential to change healthcare in our country for the better.
Is it too far-fetched to think the same thing could be done using Woodward’s method for investigative journalism? What if, instead of the “bloviating” that passes for so much news today, we embraced a new kind of reporting that helps our nation reach for the next stage of good?