Leadership lesson

The University of Georgia’s Monday night beatdown of TCU for football’s Division I national championship somehow brought up the memory of what I’ve always held as one of the best lessons I’ve encountered on leadership.

I ask some of you to bear with me. This is not another sports story.

We were entering the final week of the 1995 high school football season in Texas. I had been the editor of the Denison Herald newspaper a little more than a year and our local high school team, the Denison Yellow Jackets, qualified for the state championship game against La Marque.

Back then, schools meeting in playoff games would negotiate where to play, even for the championship. Usually, they would try to choose a nice venue somewhere between the two. For the Denison-La Marque game, there was plenty of room to choose from since it was some 350 miles from Denison on the Red River to La Marque, which was all but on the Gulf of Mexico, but there wasn’t a lot to choose from in the middle of that drive. There were, however, two pearls, one on each end of the string.

The Houston Astrodome sat 39 miles from La Marque. Texas Stadium was 76 miles from Denison. Either was an exciting location for a high school game.

It came down to a coin flip. Winner chooses the venue. La Marque won.

This begins my story.

Logistics

I was off work on Monday, but that afternoon I got a head’s-up phone call from my city editor about the plans being made in my absence.

Just a little more background. Denison lies next to Sherman, actually meeting each other on U.S. 75 and Texoma Parkway. They are true sister cities, all the way down to sibling rivalries. At that time, each had its own newspaper. To be sure, we were in competition with the Sherman Democrat, but it was in some ways softened by the fact we were both owned by the same company. For example, we used their printing press. Staffers were friends with each other.

So, while I was raking leaves on my day off, the two publishers – doing what publishers often do – sought to figure the most economical way to cover an important event occurring some 320 miles away. Their solution was to send my sports editor to provide stories for both papers and to rely on The Associated Press for photos. Or something like that.

Thanks to Michelle Dooner cluing me in, I was prepared when my publisher arrived Tuesday morning. After he outlined the plan, I said, “OK, now here’s what I want to do.”

The late Mark Palmer was typical of most publishers in that he did not come from the news side of the business. Generally speaking, that’s really a good thing because journalists are not usually that great at worrying about the profit line. A budget left up to newspaper editors would result in a lot of underutilized helicopters.

Back to Mark and me standing in his office; I’m offering my plan:

“I want to send Ty (Benz, our sports editor), Joe (Cole, our photographer) and Don (Munsch, a news reporter who had been doing feature stories throughout the playoffs).” I don’t remember how I framed my presentation except to point out that if La Marque won, we could expect most of the AP photos to feature them. (That proved to be the case.)

While we were discussing this, the paper’s advertising director and assistant publisher, Wes King, walked in.

“Steve tells me I’ve been underestimating the importance of this ball game,” Mark said.

“Oh, yeah,” came the reply.

And this is the lesson on leadership…

First, my publisher actually listened and considered an alternate opinion. He then told me to proceed as I wanted, that he would eat crow, cover the expenses, and work things out with the Sherman publisher (who was also his boss).

Twenty-seven years later, it still ranks as one of my more notable management experiences.

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