The Best Leader We Ever Had!


When someone says this person “was the best leader we ever had” my ears perk up. But when that “someone” is legendary journalist and world traveler Charles Krault, I bend my ear and give him my full attention.

In his book, Charles Kuralt: A Life On The Road, the CBS news correspondent relays the story of an interesting leadership transition at CBS:

The management of CBS News passed from Fred Friendly to Richard S. Salon. Fred’s inner Mount Etna went off in a dispute about news coverage with the management across town. He resigned. Salant was a company lawyer with no background in journalism. Never mind his background;

Salant was the best leader we ever had.

Almost alone among CBS News Presidents, he represented the news staff to the CBS Corporation rather than the other way around. Salant’s idea was that he would worry about sponsors and ratings and air time, leaving the rest of us to worry about telling people the news. Salant had high principles and expected us to live up to them. With the advice of two people deputies, Bill Leonard and Gordon Manning – also the best we ever had – he codified all the unwritten ethical rules of broadcast journalism into a thick white book with a plastic cover, CBS New Standards and Practices. He made it a loose-leaf book so that he could add new rules as he thought of them.

When I read Kuralt’s observations about Salant, it was like watching the breaking sun illuminate a path I need to walk. Not only did Kuralt express his appreciation for Salant’s leadership, he also applied his powers of journalistic observation to clarify what made Salant the “best leader.”

5 Traits of “Best Leaders”

Richard S. Salant stood out from his peers because he was a servant. Examining what Krault shares about him we discover five traits that every aspiring servant leader can take to heart:

1. Servant leaders are other-centered.

Salant “represented the news staff to the CBS Corporation, rather than the other way around.” Who do you represent?

2. Servant leaders empower their people.

Salant empowered his team by tackling the tough stuff. He took on the things that would slow them down: tracking down sponsors, worry about ratings, and finding air time. What can you do that frees your people to be their best?

3. Servant leaders are principled.

Being a servant leader is not being a pushover. It is not giving folks “free reign of the farm.” Salant had high principles and demanding expectations, demonstrating that it is both possible and necessary for servanthood and excellence to coexist. Does your team know and embrace your high principles and standards?

4. Servant leaders are not Lone Rangers.

Krault noted that Salant had two able deputies. Journalists choose their words wisely. Krault did not say “yes men,” but able men. Great leaders surround themselves with great people. Who are you leaning on to help you accomplish your role?

5. Servant leaders back their teams

Salant backed his team wholeheartedly when his CBS News correspondents unintentionally ruffled the feathers of a corporate executive who then complained to the CBS upper brass. Salant backed them and he did it without fanfare or grandstanding. His actions said, “You are doing a great job. Keep it up. I am with you.” How can you stand behind your team?

What if . . .

Krault’s “best leader we ever had” comment makes me stop and think: What if that could be said of every leader? Imagine what it would be like if Krault’s accolade were echoed in every company, every educational institution, every church, every synagogue, and every community enterprise:

    That coach was the best leader we ever had.
    That shift manager was the best leader we ever had.
    That boss was the best leader we ever had.
    That pastor was the best leader we ever had.
    That superintendent was the best leader we ever had.

Servant leadership is what made Salant “the best leader.” It is what makes your leadership stand out as well. Being a pastor and a student of leadership my mind runs to Jesus and then to Paul, an early leader of the church.  Jesus said,

The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
— Matthew 23:11-12 NIV

Jesus made it perfectly clear that serving others is the high-water mark of leadership. Then Paul steps up and tells me to evaluate my life to ensure I am that kind of leader. He urges me not to unsay with my life what I am saying with my mouth and my pen.

Paul is writing to leaders in the church, but his admonition for personal introspection is appropriate for every leader:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
— 1 Timothy 4:16 NIV

I don't know how carefully Salant examined his leadership. From all accounts, he paid close attention. I do know, however, that I can take a careful look at my own practices. So can you.

Review the five traits. Which one stands between you and being "the best leader we ever had"?

God calls his leaders to persist and God always provides the power for what he calls us to do. Why not ask him to help sharpen your life and leadership today!

“The management of CBS News …” from Charles Kuralt: A Life on the Road. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1990. Pages 109-10.