Within minutes after the unexpected death of Tim Russert was announced, the story took on a complete life of its own. While at first I admit I was just curious to find out what happened, I was soon humbled by the sudden outpouring of shock and the impact that Russert had on so many people. Not since the passing of JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and Princess Diana do I recall seeing so many people stunned by a death. Wherever I visited, people were staring at the television, glued to the radio, or talking with complete strangers about his death.
Why was the death of this journalist and host of Meet the Press so meaningful? We’ve lost celebrities in the past but the public response for them paled in comparison to what I saw and heard over this past weekend. Why did the passing of this one man have such a profound effect on so many people?
As I began to watch and listen to the stories about Russert be recounted during the televised day-long tributes and remembrances, I realized that Russert exemplified the virtues of a great leader. Nearly everyone, from politicians, colleagues, and even his competitors, lauded Russert’s prowess as a journalist and as an interviewer. But these were just roles he filled. What is more important is that while he held no official leadership position other than Washington Bureau Chief for NBC, his life encapsulated the behavior that anyone who finds him- or herself in a leadership or management role must strive to emulate.
I must admit that I always enjoyed listening to Tim Russert but was not a loyal watcher of Meet the Press nor his other shows. But when channel surfing, my fingers stopped clicking the channel changer if Tim was a guest or host. I admired his quick wit, his humility, his curiosity, his persistence, his direct but fair questioning.
Despite his enormous success and recognition as one of the world’s leading political analysts, Russert remained just a common guy. He seemed like the kind of guy you’d trust with your darkest and deepest secret even if you only met him minutes ago. He seemed like the guy you’d strike up a conversation with at the corner bar about what was happening in the neighborhood and just stay there talking for hours.
Tim Russert never forgot where he came from. He never forgot his roots coming from Buffalo, the son of a blue collar worker who worked two jobs for thirty years to support his family. He had a humble beginning and remained humble right up until his untimely death. He was not embarrassed by his father’s occupation as a trash hauler. Instead he was so proud that he made him a national hero.
There is no greater legacy that Tim Russert leaves to both current and up and coming leaders than how critical humility is in becoming an effective leader. Too often these days people start life on third base and then think they hit a triple. Russert never took his success for granted and always remained thankful to those who helped him become the person he became. Russert told Larry King one of the lessons he taught his son, “you’re always, always loved but you are never entitled.”
Russert loved what he did and it always showed. I thought it odd that in the days that followed his death, not a single picture was shown that didn’t show him with that huge smile or devilish twinkle in his eyes —or both. And then I heard Tom Brokaw tell us why that was so: “it was tough to find a picture of my friend Tim when he wasn’t smiling.”
But the smiles weren’t about him but the success of others. In spite of the high, high standards Russert set for himself, the success was never about him. He enjoyed everyone’s success even more than his own.
Story after story has came out from family, friends, interns to politicians about lives that Russert touched. He was the ultimate mentor and cheerleader. He had this missionary zeal for lifting people up, for wanting to make everyone around him better. This doesn’t mean he ignored flaws in people but recognized them as human beings. He once said that the “best exercise for the human heart is to pick someone up and hold them up.”
His interviewing style was described as tough but fair, direct but never condescending, persistent but civilized. Russert was always challenging, but never hostile. He never intended to embarrass anyone but to understand what they were thinking. He set a high standard that others only wanted to emulate which elevated everyone’s performance. James Carville, Democratic strategist and good friend of Russert, was asked “if he [Russert] was really as good as he seemed?” Carville replied, “he was better.”
Eleanor Roosevelt once said about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that “the best men always had a lot of the little boy in them.” What made Russert great was that he never lost “the little boy” inside. Despite meeting and interviewing Presidents, world leaders, and several Popes, he never lost his innocence. Until his death he took the most complex and polarizing topic and spun it down to its simplest form. He put “legal-eze” and political-speak in terms that even the most common man could understand. He didn’t try to impress us, not even with designer suits that he could well afford. Tom Brokaw said, despite Tim’s success, he still relied on his “three tailors – L., L. & Bean.”
Driving Russert was a passion for the truth and integrity. He was genuinely curious, always wondering what you were thinking and who you were. He rarely fought for a cause other than plain old human decency. What you saw was what you got. Russert was a superb role model. His passion for life and for his work gushed from his heart. He had this Walter Cronkite-type of integrity. He lived his life in a way that others only dream about living. He was passionately enthusiastic. He wanted everyone to be an A player, not just himself. He revered his father, his wife and his son. He believed in God, his country and fellow man.
What I learned over these past days from Tim Russert was what leadership is all about. I learned more about leadership from hearing and observing how he lived his life than I did from reading hundreds of leadership books, spending dozens of hours in workshops and class, and writing too many columns and term papers.
The leadership lessons of Tim Russert are simple but so true:
- Never forget where you came from.
- Never forget who helped you get you where you are.
- Always be tough but fair.
- Never stop challenging others to seek the truth.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare.
- Help everyone become an A player.
- Have fun doing whatever you do.
- Do what you do with a missionary zeal.
- Keep the little boy alive inside you.
- Keep faith, families, and friends in the forefront.
Or to sum it all up in Tim Russert’s words: “Work hard, laugh often and keep your honor.”
By Samuel Ryder