Imagine this: you’re the well-to-do daughter of a media mogul who owns and publishes a well-known newspaper in the United States and an art intellectual who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Auguste Rodin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein—each very much at the core of the character development of their generation. Being raised in that kind of environment in the 1940s, you’ve developed some kind of courage; enough that you’ve become a reporter—unusual for a woman of that time.
Just after World War II ends, rather than handing the reins of the newspaper over to you, your father hires his son-in-law—in other words, your husband—as the new publisher. You shrug it off; after all, there’s not much you can do about that. In fact, you’re pleased for him. Your husband then assumes full control of the newspaper on your father’s passing in 1959, and proceeds to expand the media empire, taking over a prominent American magazine and several TV stations. Meanwhile, you follow in your parents’ footsteps, this time rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, JFK/RFK, the Reagans, and other core elements of 1960s politics. Things are going pretty well for you.
An oft-quoted lyric from Leonard Cohen goes as such:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget the perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
And such is the inciting incident—the crack—and its powerful role in your story. One day in 1963, the unthinkable happens: you hear the shot of a gun downstairs in your house, and come running down to find your husband on the floor, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In the midst of your grief, you learn that you’ve become the heiress of a publication in an industry dominated by men.
In time, with a little creative thinking, you see a light coming in through that painful crack. You stare down the board and tell them that, against their urges to sell off the paper, you’ll instead take on an active role in its direction. Against mainstream expectations of a woman at the time, you succeed in more ways than one: namely, while you aggressively played the gender equality card as your newspaper’s publisher, your reporters were instrumental in taking down Richard Nixon in the infamous Watergate scandal. In the process, you even pissed off Nixon’s attorney general so much that he delivered this vulgar gem to your reporter, Carl Bernstein, as a warning to you: “[She’s] going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” In the meantime, you became the first female Fortune 500 CEO in 1972.
That’s the real-life character development arc of Katherine Graham, who headed the Washington Post as publisher from 1963 through to 1979 when she handed the reins over to her son, Donald. Later, her 1998 memoir, Personal History, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Imagine being in Ms. Graham’s shoes in 1963. Not only was she recovering from the unimaginable shock of losing her husband, she was pressured into allowing someone else—a man, of course—to take over. Instead, she stepped up and excelled. That inciting incident marked a powerful moment in her personal story; in turn, it had a marked effect on the development of her corporation’s brand.
Graham demonstrated considerable fortitude at a traumatic time in her life, and became one of the most important characters in twentieth-century media. This required difficult thought processes during times of great conflict—overcoming opposing forces in the form of men in her profession, social norms of the time, even her own self-doubt—and she overcame them and is now enshrined in media lore. It wasn’t just about overcoming that initial challenge; the way in which she responded to her inciting incident merely set the foundations for a strong leadership in the years and decades ahead.
The trickle-down effect of that sort of strong leadership has been proven; a recent study shows a direct correlation between the engagement score of employees and the effectiveness percentile of their high-level (HL) managers, such that the the engagement score is upward of 80 percent for the top 10 percent most effective HL managers and hovering around just 17 percent for the least effective 10 percent. More so, the marked effect of powerful HL leadership has an effect not only on your employees, but on their own employees as well.
Story guru Robert McKee told Content Standard managing editor Jon Simmons in an interview earlier this year: “Turning a corporation into a story’s core character is a special task, as is with a product.” As a C-suite leader, your own actions and personality in the boardroom and in your corporation’s hallways have a direct impact on your brand’s growth. As your ship’s captain, you also have a choice: maintain the status quo operations of your business, or venture into scary, uncharted waters with fortitude and confidence. It’s during these times that you might directly impact your industry and make a name for yourself and, in turn, see your brand become an innovative leader in that industry.
Also, by making difficult decisions in the face of opposing forces, you might even broach new territory and become a visionary in your area, such as Charles Coffin and Steve Jobs.
Coffin was one business leader who was such a visionary. Read some history books and you’ll learn that Coffin was the real father of General Electric, not the better-known Thomas Edison. While Edison has his role in American folklore as that light-bulb and phonograph guy—as well as, of course, being the founder of GE and 13 other companies—Coffin knew next to nothing about electrical engineering when he assumed the head-cheese position at GE.
In fact, he was a shoemaker. Let me repeat that: the big boss of General Electric was a shoemaker.
Contrary to what expectations may have been at the time, Coffin put GE on the map. His lack of experience was a strength in itself because it forced him to utilize others’ strengths. First, he revolutionized American industry in two fundamental ways. For one, he developed the concept of systemic management—effectively, managing in a controlled, systemic way rather than according to the whims and preferences of individual leaders. But more so, he oversaw the construction of the country’s first industrial research facility, allowing for future innovations to occur and be implemented with GE’s stamp on them.
That facility was not Coffin’s own creation—while he guided its development, it was Charles P. Steinmetz, one of GE’s leading engineers, who came up with the idea. This just furthered Coffin’s strategy of “steering genius” rather than innovating himself. “While Edison was essentially a genius with a thousand helpers, Coffin created a system of genius that did not depend on him,” wrote leading business consultant Jim Collins, who ranked him as the top CEO of all time.
“In a certain sense, [Coffin was] your classic entrepreneur,” said Bernard Carlson, a University of Virginia professor of science, technology and society. “He made things happen. He understood the world wasn’t going to be static and that his job was to get a hold of change and make it work for you.” The same can be said for Graham at the Washington Post; while tragic, her husband’s death marked a change in her life and career, and she made it work for her.
Also like Graham, Coffin’s leadership saw tangible results. The company’s market capitalization surged from $35 million in 1892 to $184 million at his retirement. Not bad for someone who started out in the shoe business.
We know well the notoriously abrasive management practices of Apple’s Steve Jobs in building a computer empire that rebelled against the industry status quo. Not only did he make computers cool and mainstream, he also utilized others’ strengths in Apple’s growth; particularly Steve Wozniak’s own brilliance as a computer engineer, not to mention countless other engineers in developing the “perfect” listening device (iPod) and other Appleisms. Forbes contributor John Wasik wrote about the “Apple Rules”, saying that under those rules, “products like the iPhone, iPod and Mac just didn’t emerge out of the ether in a flash of inspiration. They had to come from somewhere and were ushered into this world by teams of people.” Teams, not individuals. Such is the importance of HL leadership in a brand.
Of course, we know the story of how Apple’s fortunes were revived when Jobs returned to the fold in 1997. As Time wrote:
[I]n 1997, with the company operating at a loss and Microsoft’s Windows 95 flying off the shelves, Apple’s board decided that a zealot was just what it needed. In August of that year, Jobs rejoined the board in August, becoming CEO — at first, with an “interim” — the following month. “He had become a far better leader, less of a go-to-hell aesthete who cared only about making beautiful objects,” wrote Fortune’s editor-at-large Peter Elkind of the co-founder’s triumphant return. “Now he was a go-to-hell aesthete who cared about making beautiful objects that made money.” In time, he became recognized as one of the company’s most valuable assets.
Years after Jobs’ death in 2011, his role as “go-to-hell aesthete” in the Apple brand’s character development is practically of legendary proportions; more than just a few movies, documentaries, and books have been made about Jobs and the things he did as captain of the Apple ship. Who knows how Apple might have fared if Jobs did not return as CEO.
Nowadays, we see the influences of both Coffin and Jobs in the offices of today’s organizations. They were strong leaders who incorporated the strengths of those around them to drive their brand’s story forward.
To be sure, a great story happens when that inciting incident triggers your motive, but don’t wait for it to happen in your own business narrative. Edmund Burke once said: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” It might have been easier for Graham to assume the role as boss of the Washington Post on a temporary basis until someone “more worthy” came along. But if she had done so, who knows whether the Washington Post would be one of the most widely-read American newspapers today. Her steely determination led to an active role in American history—none the least, the downfall of one of America’s most notorious presidents.
But that does not mean you need an inciting incident—particularly a tragedy such as the one Graham experienced—to make difficult decisions. To be a successful CEO, you need to step up and take charge, and take risks. You might argue it’s more important to maintain a stable ship, but if you do so, then the status quo of your brand will simply continue. You’ll proceed as usual, retire as usual, and your company will remain unchanged. Maybe so, but that means your competitors will get ahead and you’ll be breathing their dust.
Instead, step up and get ahead of the curve, and take charge. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat and disturb the balance. Your company’s future character development may well be hanging in that balance.