Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Leadership and management are not the same thing

Newsrooms must create ways for people to learn to lead without pushing people into management.

A quote from the author, P. Kim Bui, that says, "Too many of us were only offered one way to make more money: Become a manager. That should not be the case."

(Photo by Mauro Lima on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

The career path, traditionally, has been outlined like this: Reporter to Senior Reporter to Editor to Top Leadership.

In recent years, there have been arguments for product people to lead newsrooms, which is perfectly valid. There have also been arguments for people from other parts of the newsroom to become leadership (I’ve heard arguments for those with data and visual backgrounds to go beyond those siloed roles).

What comes to mind at the end of these arguments is why is management the only way for a journalist to explore and grow their leadership skills?

Leadership and management are fundamentally different skills, as leadership is a way of galvanizing change and management is a function and tasks related to that function.

Take it from Stacy Marie-Ishamael, who said the following at SRCCON:LEAD in 2019:

“Manager is a role, management is a function and leadership is a practice,” she said. “Good managers practice leadership, but it doesn’t mean that all leaders are necessarily managers, because there’s a ton of delegating involved in coming up with a vision.”

All this is to say you can be a good manager and a poor leader, and vice versa.

So why are we teaching people management skills and putting them in management roles when they really want to exercise leadership, coalition-building and vision-creating? Other industries do this and have systems built in place. Specifically, technical roles have created leadership but not management systems, like senior engineers who are tasked with mentoring and teaching other engineers.

There are so many ways for leadership to be developed in newsrooms that are not synonymous with people management.

Here are four leadership spaces organizations can train staff for, without pushing them into management:

Leadership of a project

The person leading an investigation or a test of a new tool does not have to be an editor. A reporter can learn project management skills and lead their own projects.

Leadership of a group or committee

Sure, it is leadership for a journalist of color to lead a diversity committee. But so is leading a recruitment committee. Or a media literacy committee. A listening session or high school journalism mentorship. It is OK for committees to be lead by workers, and this is an easy thing for top leadership to delegate, while letting others learn leadership skills.

Leadership in coaching others

Mentorship as leadership. Coaching and mentoring more early career folk is a kind of leadership that is collaborative, and has gains for everyone involved.

Leadership of coverage or specific skills

Story arcs come and go and often, a beat reporter is the de facto expert on a topic, like local elections. They can teach others how to develop a beat with depth. Similarly, it is building and exercising leadership to have a data reporter show others how to collect and sort through public documents.

All of these kinds of leadership, however, require a degree of faith from top editors, and space for a person to learn by doing. Giving a person who is exploring leadership one of these roles without supporting them sets that person up to fail. Please don’t do this. You cannot micromanage a person’s growth, you must let them try and fail and learn and try again.

Leadership skills we can train for

The leadership programs that exist, while they are now numerous, all focus on leading a team or a newsroom as the ultimate goal. What if we all agreed that there are other paths to follow, and spent the same amount of energy training folks how to lead an effective brainstorm, or organize a large-scale meeting?

It can, and should, be acceptable for a reporter to remain a reporter, but be viewed as a leader and given leadership roles (and compensated appropriately for that work)

The skills needed for non-management leaders vary slightly from the skills a high-level managers needs to display, but they are still the same core skills.

Skill one: Collaboration and influence

The solution to conflict or debate cannot always be democratic decisions or top-down autocratic leadership. Facilitating conversation that is respectful and productive is a skill any kind of leadership needs. Influence is how to find and create a coalition of the willing.

Skill Two: Organization

It could be how to set up a story budget, or how to create a project pitch process, but collecting, organizing and prioritizing ideas is a skill anyone can use. It’s also essential that a leader create a system that can live beyond them, and have a method for saving and dispersing ideas, communications and materials.

Skill Three: Giving (and receiving) feedback through coaching and mentoring

Being able to give and receive feedback in a constructive, helpful way, is a huge skillset. The best managers and leaders are able to not only give feedback, but to do it through coaching, which is the practice of knowing which questions to ask, so you can lead someone to come to the best decision themselves. Another great skill is giving feedback through your role as a mentor, which is all about building a relationship based on trust and assistance.

Skill Four: Teaching a skill and sharing expertise

Some managers think leadership is about hoarding skills that no one else has. However, true leadership is sharing and teaching. Everyone can do that. It could be how to act in a protest, or how to file a FOIA request, but there are endless skills and expertise that can be shared, and teaching requires all of the above skills to be successful.

How do we start?

First, we can internalize and understand the difference between leadership and management. Let’s use the words appropriately once we have defined them. Transparency is key, especially in telling someone “hey it sounds like you want to explore this leadership skill, is that the next step you’d like to take in your career?” or by refraining from “rewarding” a great reporter by putting them in a management role without asking, and listening to, how they envision leading.

On the same tack, an organization needs to show it values leadership as much as management, through kudos, compensation and other indicators of value. I have said that often, the way to get paid more at a certain point in your career is to move into management. That should not be the case. We need to value these skills in every sense of the word.

As an industry, this needs to happen as well. And for every leadership (but actually management) program, let’s develop programs that emphasize leadership skills that anyone can take on. I have done this ad hoc by mentoring and setting up mentorships for people to gain leadership skills on my team.

We’d love to hear other ways you’re thinking about building leadership into your newsroom! Drop a note in our suggestions box.

P. Kim Bui
Emma Carew Grovum
Leaders of Color

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  • P. Kim Bui

    P. Kim Bui is the director of product and audience innovation at the Arizona Republic. She’s focused her career on leading real-time news initiatives and creating storytelling forms for digital, print and broadcast companies catering to local, national and global audiences. Prior, she was editor-at-large for NowThis News, focusing on original, social reporting and breaking news. She was also deputy managing editor for reported.ly, a digital media startup specializing in social journalism. She’s been a speaker, trainer and teacher on leadership and digital journalism at universities, conferences and gatherings worldwide. She writes a newsletter for emerging leaders and managers, The Middles: themiddl.es


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