The Gray Lady Gives the Boot


Why was Jill Abramson fired as executive editor of the New York Times?

It’s the question that has launched a thousand posts. Some suggest it was because of rank gender bias. Some suggest it was because Abramson had demanded pay to match that of her (male) predecessor. Some suggest it was because she pushed for that higher pay through a lawyer. Some suggest it was because Abramson was “abrasive.”

We can’t pretend to know a lot of the internal politics. Abramson reportedly clashed with New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., with New York Times CEO Mark Thompson and, increasingly, with New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet, who has now replaced her. What we can say is that, regardless of who may have been at fault for what, there was a cumulative failure of management on the part of all parties concerned. It is one that Peter Drucker would have warned about, had he been available for consultation.

This failure, we should note, had little to do with Abramson’s reputation for toughness. Drucker had no objection to bosses who were demanding or even cold (as we’ve noted). Often, he thought, aloofness characterized good leaders. In Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Drucker noted there is many a leader who “is not often ‘outgoing’ or ‘affable,’” who “has little ‘empathy’” and “not a trace of charisma,” and yet “always inspires confidence, always commands respect.” He also pointed out that subordinates will forgive many flaws in a boss if that boss has integrity—and no one has contested that quality in Abramson.

But where Drucker would have seen incompetence was in what he called “relationship responsibility.” Simply put, most of the key players mentioned above seemed to have done a poor job of conveying to one another what they needed to know and what was expected of them. Abramson reportedly went so far as to attempt to bring in an editor at the same level as Baquet without consulting Baquet. And Sulzberger seems to have at times been “livid, in a very passive-aggressive way” over some of Abramson’s actions, as one source told New York Magazine, which is another way of saying he expressed his dismay unclearly, if at all.

Whenever I—or any other consultant—have started to work with an organization, I am first told of all the ‘personality conflicts’ within it,” Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “Most of them arise from the fact that one person does not know what the other person does, or does not know how the other person does his or her work, or does not know what contribution the other person concentrates on, and what results he or she expects. And the reason that they do not know is that they do not ask and therefore are not being told.”

At the end of the day, Drucker pointed out, organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. “This presupposes that people understand one another,” he wrote. “Taking relationship responsibility is therefore an absolute necessity. It is a duty.”

What do you make of the firing of Jill Abramson?