Out of the 'Times' debacle comes a lesson for managers

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I was at my 25th college reunion three weeks ago, participating in a panel discussion on the writing profession, when a woman in the audience asked about the difficulties of pursuing a life in letters. Without advance thought, I responded that nothing in journalism compared with the challenge of leading a team of people in a large company, an activity with which I have been engaged during the latter part of my career. Why is that, the woman asked? "Because," I said, "writing is all about me. Managing must be all about them."

The exchange came to mind the other week when I, and the world, learned that Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, talented journalists and good men, had stepped down from leading the newsroom of The New York Times. The widely covered Times saga has been construed by most observers to be a media story: one about the limits of "reader-friendly" writing, the morality of Generation Y journos and the sow-reap-cycle of contemporary tabloid culture.

But I think the Times debacle (about which I have only a casual bystander's knowledge) is only marginally about the media. Overwhelmingly, it is a lesson in management. Indeed, the most powerful comment about the affair may be one made by Times Co. Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. the day the resignations were tendered. The ability of journalists to perform, he said, "depends on their feeling they are being treated in a collaborative and collegial fashion."

Having been bred in the last years of Abe Rosenthal's rule at The Times, I humbly submit that the distance traveled from his often rigid autocracy to Mr. Sulzberger's comment could not be greater. But it's not just The Times that's changed; it's the world, the economy and the nature of companies. As much as the bursting of the economic bubble put a damper on `90s-era notions like "the war for talent," the fact is the conduct of business, whatever the industry, depends increasingly on the value added by skilled, creative people. Such men and women exist up and down the hierarchy, from administrative assistants to senior strategists. The challenge is to allow them to do more than exist: It's to help them thrive-within a structured environment unburdened by the sluggishness of democracy or the chaos of anarchy.

How? Well, it's rough, and folks who work with me will gladly attest that I'm no expert. But here's what I've learned, both from well-published thought leaders on the subject, such as the University of Michigan's Noel Tichy, and several professional mentors.

* You can't do it alone. A leader without a team is like a general without an army: No matter how inspired the strategy, you lose.

* It's not only your duty to listen; it's your obligation to learn. Any senior executive who thinks he or she knows everything about something will simply not be open to that offbeat idea that just might change the world. You can't delegate vision, but at the same time, you need to let others build upon it.

* Once you learn, you must teach. Prof. Tichy argues that the best companies, and their leaders, develop a "teachable point of view," an implementable version of "the vision thing," premised on ideas, values, emotional energy and "edge." It's a far better approach to making change happen than browbeating people into it.

Sounds easy. But if it were, the world's greatest newspaper wouldn't have faced open rebellion. In all fields where creativity is king (and queen and court), the rules of the team are the only rules that count.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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