Katharine Graham was forty six when her life took a dramatic turn.
Her husband, the fizz of her life as she called him, died. She was now the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, one of America’s most prestigious newspapers.
No one expected her to run the newspaper. Most thought she would sell. Katharine loved the Washington Post though, and decided to take the reins.
Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Katharine was raised by nannies and educated at the best of schools. All of this was little advantage. She remained shy and insecure.
Her father, semi-retired and looking for something to do, had spent a lazy $890,000 buying the Washington Post newspaper in a fire sale. Katharine’s dad ran the newspaper for a while but then got a better offer, heading up the World Bank.
Katharine’s husband, Philip, took over the Washington Post. When Philip died, Katharine, with no management experience, was left in charge.
She threw herself into the business for eight years, learning as she went. She writes:
“I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be doing, so I set out to learn. What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge.”
It was never easy with mistakes and headaches galore, but she hung on.
Then in 1971 she found herself at the centre of a wild storm. The Washington Post came into possession of the Pentagon Papers, confidential documents outlining the secret escalation by the U.S. government of the Viet Nam war.
Katharine was caught in a critical situation. Her editors and staff were all for exposing the Government’s deceit, and to hell with the consequences.
The newspaper’s lawyers and financiers though, had a different point of view. They were equally vocal in calling for caution, restraint, not rocking the boat. The Post was right in the middle of a public float on the stock market. A wrong decision could mean financial disaster.
“Don’t pick a fight with city hall” was the financiers’ catch cry.
Publishing the Pentagon Papers would put the Washington Post, and Katharine herself, in direct conflict with the U.S. President and the Administration. It was a big call for any shy, insecure silver spooner.
She might have been shy but Katharine was no coward. She wouldn’t be bullied. She backed her editors. Her orders were clear and unequivocal. “Let’s go. Let’s publish”.
The Post took the bit between its teeth and survived. Within months an even bigger controversy developed. Reporters Woodward and Bernstein had uncovered Watergate.
Facing months of tension, bullyboy tactics and outright threats, Katharine stood firm behind her reporters as they applied the blowtorch to the U.S. Government Administration. Again the stakes were high. The Post had no proof of wrong doing. Katharine and her staff trusted their instincts.
In the end, Katharine and the Post were vindicated when President Nixon accepted responsibility and resigned.
People started referring to Katharine as the most powerful woman in America. It was an amazing journey for a person who had started out so shy and so unsure of herself.
Katharine Graham never tried to change herself. She never had a transformation program. She never set goals or targets. She let the work itself transform her.
“I didn’t really transform myself. Working transformed me, and I went to work not thinking that my role would develop as it did. I went to work because I found that I owned the controlling shares of the company, and I thought, well, if this is so, I need to learn what it is that’s at stake here and what the serving issues are because maybe someday I will have to make some sort of decision that I have to be intelligent about, so I’d better know.”
“…and, of course, once you got to work, you realized that decisions came up and you had to make them and you had to participate, and you couldn’t just sit there and learn.”
Her progress was slow and steady, just one step at a time. She says she got there “by putting one foot after another, shutting my eyes and stepping off the edge.”
Sometimes we look for the instantaneous change. We want to be better and we think we can instigate that change by brute force. Katharine Graham had a different philosophy. She did her job and let the forces at work there change her.
Your work can change you. Select great work and your transformation, over time, will be profound.
© “Release the Giant” 2008 well imagine that