Would you have seen Barack Obama’s potential?
New college graduate Barack Obama got a job at a business information company in New York. His first boss was, in effect, a city editor. And he was not very impressed by young Obama. According to biographer David Maraniss, the boss “could not see him as a leader.”
The reason behind that editor’s opinion should interest every college media leader, especially those considering staff selections for the coming year.
The boss had wondered about Obama all along, mostly because they were opposite types. [The boss] was wired all day, always on edge, sometimes over the edge, according to some of the employees, and he preferred people as energized as he was. To him, Obama seemed too laid-back, not engaged. He liked extroverts “that were go-getters, that were hustlers, that got really excited about their jobs.” Obama, he thought, lacked those qualities and “seemed a bit of a lone wolf.”
–“Barack Obama: The Story,” p. 501
Yep, the boss sounds like a city editor. In fact, he sounds like me when I was a young city editor — and before that when I was a section editor at my college newspaper. I was loud and driven, and I expected all my newsroom colleagues to be the same.
I don’t have hard data for this, only decades of experience: Those who become newsroom leaders most often fall on the extroverted end of the spectrum. And many people — not just bosses — buy into a stereotype that all journalists must be “go-getters … hustlers … really excited about their jobs.”
A few years of student media experience tells me that for all we hear about youthful rebellion against corporate attitudes, today’s student media leaders are about as extroverted as ever. As Jerry Seinfeld might add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The problem arises when the extroverted newsroom leader fails to value introverts.
As I’ve said before, introverts often are good listeners and like to communicate in writing, so it might be a good idea to recruit them. And I’ve urged you to help “shy” journalists blossom by helping them build competence. Today, I’m asking you to keep that introvert/extrovert dynamic in mind as you select leaders and other staff members.
Note: In fairness to Obama’s ex-boss, it should be acknowledged that the future president was not terribly enthusiastic about that business information job. He did it well, by his boss’ account, but he was not destined to be a leader in that field. And the boss should be given credit for candidly recalling his assessment when Maraniss interviewed him all those years later. The takeaway is not that Obama’s boss was dumb — it’s that extroverts must be careful not to overlook potential in those who don’t act the same way.