How to Be a Hero

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It is odd how the death of someone you’ve never met can have a profound personal impact.

September 01, 2001

 

Heather McCune

 

It is odd how the death of someone you’ve never met can have a profound personal impact.

One of my heroes died recently. I’d never met Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. I’ve read a lot about her. I was a regular reader of her newspaper. Her autobiography, Personal History, is the only book permanently in the ever-changing pile on my nightstand.

What I learned from Katharine Graham is what it takes to be a hero. The lessons her life and her career offer to me are few and relatively simple on the surface, but in day-to-day living, so hard to do well:

 

 

  • Know what your business is. When Graham took over as publisher of The Washington Post in the early 1960s she was, to use her own words, “abysmally ignorant” about the publishing business. That served her well for she quickly became a student of the industry and found that the only way to transform the Post and make it a serious contender in the competitive Washington media market was by making it the most reliable source for the best content. Graham understood that editorial is the business of any great publisher.

     

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  • Weakness can be a source of strength. More than once in her career, Graham faced circumstances that required decisions she was worried about and afraid to make, most notably giving the nod to publish the Pentagon Papers and pursue Watergate. Yet, in these situations and many more, her actions demonstrated that neither fear nor doubt would ever be an excuse for not doing what is difficult or what is right.

     

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  • Great talents still require a great leader. Hiring Ben Bradlee to be editor of the Post and turning loose two rookie city desk reporters to chase a story when no one knew it would be called Watergate required great leadership. Talents such as Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could flourish only in an environment like the one Graham created at the Post, where respect was mutual, support was forthcoming and all employees had the confidence that the paper’s publisher would fight for and with them.

     

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  • A good laugh is an important part of a day’s work. Katharine Graham loved her job. She had fun at work, was excited by the environment and enthusiastic about the challenges of each new day, and she shared that joy. She lived the lines work hard, play hard, live well, laugh often, and because she blended work and fun so well and shared it so readily with all around her, the Post thrived. Employees worked harder and stayed longer because work was fun.

    What set Katharine Graham apart and made her my hero is that every day — no matter what the odds or obstacles — she tried her best to do her best with grace, humor and an unwavering belief that quality is the only foundation for any business seeking to sustain success.

    Each year the National Housing Quality Awards program affords all of us an opportunity to meet new heroes. The 2002 winners profiled here are no exceptions. There are many lessons to be learned from Gold winners Shea Homes Colorado and Don Simon Homes, and their best practices do indeed set industry benchmarks for continuous improvement, trade partnering, customer satisfaction, employee selection and compensation, and construction quality, to name just a few.

    Neither Bert Selva, president of Shea Homes Colorado, nor David Simon, president of Don Simon Homes, will like that he has been singled out for mention here. The accomplishments of each organization result from the dedicated team of associates that get things done every day, each would insist. But what merits individual recognition for these two leaders — these two heroes — is that like Katharine Graham, both know that with quality as the foundation in their companies, as is will never be good enough. Selva and Simon demonstrate in word and deed the knowledge that it is up to them to sustain the momentum to make this daily journey less like work and more like fun, so that there is a sense of purpose and a feeling of pride for all committed to setting a quality standard every time.

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