Today, with women like Meg Whitman, Indra Nooyi, and Mary Barra, we have many examples of successful female CEOs.   

But in the 1960's, when Katharine Graham took over The Washington Post, it was a very different world. At the time, Graham was truly a female pioneer in business. Plus, when she entered the male-dominated newspaper industry, she had minimal experience in journalism and even less experience in business.

It had never been Graham's intention to take over the paper, which had been purchased by her father, Eugene Meyer, in 1933. But when her husband died while serving as publisher, Graham stepped in to run the family business.

The year was 1963. Katharine Graham was 46 years old. 

To say Katharine Graham was intimidated must have been an understatement. And it took some time for Graham to gain the trust, and also the respect of her male counterparts. However, with courage, persistence and hard work, Graham became the most successful female CEO of her day.

Graham held the reins of The Washington Post for over three decades and was crucial in growing the company into the media conglomerate we know today. She guided the paper through the release of The Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal. She was also a social activist who fought for freedom of the press and women's issues.

A large part of Graham's success was based on her values-based leadership style. Here are a few of the leadership qualities Graham utilized most. 

Self-Awareness -Graham was aware of her abilities, but also her limitations. By knowing when to ask for help, and surrounding herself with supportive mentors, Graham was able to learn quickly, and get assistance in the areas she needed. 

Compassion and Empathy - Graham was known for being compassionate and empathetic, both in her business and personal life. This trait helped create valuable relationships and inspired devotion to Graham as a leader.

Toughness - Graham relied on mental and spiritual toughness to make hard decisions. Her strong backbone and her ability to fight for her beliefs helped steer the company through many difficult challenges.

Embracing Leadership as a Learning Opportunity - From the day she entered her role at the paper, Graham was always learning. A curious, intelligent nature allowed her to get up to speed in a short amount of time and continue learning.  

Hands-on Leadership - Graham was an accessible leader who often spent time in the newsroom with her reporters. She understood the work they did, and on occasion, she even contributed story tips. Her personal involvement at all levels of the organization created a mutual level of respect that helped the paper thrive. 

Support for Employees - During the increased government pressure at the time of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, Graham never abandoned her reporters or publisher. As a real leader, Graham knew it was her responsibility to support her team, especially when times were tough.     

Following Core Convictions - Graham made difficult decisions throughout her career, but she always followed her core convictions. By following her heart, she could stand behind the outcomes of her choices, no matter the cost.

While Katharine Graham entered the world of business at 46 years old, she certainly made the most of her time. She ran The Washington Post well into her seventies and left a legacy that will be remembered for decades.

Published on: Apr 13, 2018
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