Law Firm Leaders Forum 2015: Bob Woodward on Leadership — Presidents, CEOs and the Larger Lessons

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NEW YORK — Last Thursday, after a busy morning of sessions at Law Firm Leaders Forum, Bob Woodward, associate editor of The Washington Post, delivered the keynote address to the assembled attendees.

Woodward began with advice his father, himself a lawyer, gave Woodward in his youth. “The lawyers are the key to everything. Lawyers say profound things, unless you listen closely.” With boisterous laughs from the crowd, it was clear that the audience was hooked.

Woodward reflected on several anecdotes from his career, beginning with an issue he faced when The Washington Post was about to run a story on covert CIA operations during the Reagan administration. With the White House threatening legal action, Woodward met with his attorney, Edward Bennett Williams, whom he found out represented not only Woodward and The Washington Post, but also the CIA and the President. A concerned Woodward wondered if this represented a conflict of interest.

“I like to represent the situation,” Williams responded, wryly.

Woodward noted that today there’s a lack of leaders who can represent multiple, opposing views and resolve differences to a point of satisfaction. In the end, Williams was able to negotiate between the parties, and the paper went on to run the story.

As an observer of history, Woodward was clear to say that the stories we tell should not be considered the end of the road as history, and that memoirs, specifically, can be “laundered.”

Bob Woodward (l) and LEI Chairman Ralph Baxter (r)

Bob Woodward (l) and LEI Chairman Ralph Baxter (r)

Viewing the current political landscape, he challenged that the press needs to do a complete memoir of political candidates — a practice that The Washington Post last conducted with George H. W. Bush. Today, we see candidates “pouring garbage” on one another, the press covers it, and then along come the pollsters to ask, “Do you smell something?” And political candidates have become smart enough to obfuscate their answers to hard questions. The end result is that the media only gets meaner, which diminishes trust with the public.

Lawyers, he notes, know how to get to the full story, telling the assembled crowd, “You can smell it.” And while lawyers may have the skills to suss out the facts, Woodward conceded that oftentimes getting to the truth is just a matter of “showing up.”

Simple reminders like that were the hallmark of Woodward’s message on leadership. He further noted that leaders need to send the message “I like you” to people. Simply put, he says, it’s hard not to like someone who can say that and embody that simple message.

That said, Woodward was clear that being likeable is not the final solution. Instead he suggested that time was. “What’s the power of negotiation? The power of negotiation is time against the problem,” he said, and that leaders, like presidents and politicians, are spread too thinly today to put time against a problem.

What’s more, today’s leaders are often too keen to avoid confrontation with senior leaders — a weakness to Woodward. He added that confrontation, which doesn’t have to be antagonistic, is paramount, and honesty matters. Woodward noted that this was the lesson he carried away from his conversations with Bob McNamara about the failure of the U.S. to leave the Vietnam War earlier.

Woodward’s talk struck an optimistic tone at times, one that resonated with the audience. “We don’t know the future, but we don’t know the past, it’s fixed,” he noted, prompting the audience to dig deeper and look for answers.

“History is never over,” Woodward mused.

This article was originally published on Legal Current, and is reprinted here with permission.