Katharine Graham

Summertime. A lazy Saturday afternoon. Lunch is done, you’re feeling a bit sleepy. A nap? Excellent idea. Let’s go upstairs to our bedroom and stretch out for a bit.

The wife lays down next to the husband. For a while, they’re together on the bed. He tells her he can sleep better by himself in another upstairs room. Half-drowsy, she agrees and then starts the long glide back to sleep. He leaves the bedroom. He does his best to be quiet.

A few minutes pass. She sleeps.


The sound crashes against the walls of the house. A smell begins to waft through the air.

She jumps up and runs from the bedroom. Where is he? Not here. Not here. Not here. Downstairs she races. Looking, looking. A bathroom. Inside, she finds him. His head half blown off. Blood splattered over tiles, clothing, and mirrors. A gun beside him.


Katharine Meyer Graham was the woman lying on the bed on Saturday, August 3, 1963. She was with her husband, Phil Graham. He was lying on the bathroom floor.

Phil Graham had been diagnosed with a then little-known mental condition termed manic depression, or bipolar disorder as we call it today. Phil and Katharine Graham had suffered through marital problems, including an affair by Phil and an almost purposeful humilation of Katharine among family, friends, and associates in greater Washington DC.

Her father, Eugene Meyer, had been a successful financier and owner-publisher of the Washington Post newspaper and affiliated companies. The elder Meyer had hand-picked Phil Graham to be his successor at the Post. As it turned out, Graham also married Meyer’s daughter, Katharine. Graham took over control of the newspaper company after his father-in-law Eugene Meyer died in 1959.

But in summer 1963, with her father and husband both dead, the Washington Post Company passed into the hands of Katharine Graham. She had to make a choice: either sell the Washington Post Company or appoint someone else to run the business until her eldest son Donald would be ready to take over. No one seriously considered a third option—that she take control of the organization herself. That was a ridiculous thought.

You could count on one hand in 1963 the number of women who controlled major organizations. Maybe two fingers on one hand. All of American organizational, social, and economic culture ran against the insertion of Katharine Graham into formal leadership of the Post. No one regarded her as a candidate for bucking the trend. She was not a pioneer type.

None of the more than a dozen white men who sat on the Post’s board of directors would have desired Graham to lead the newspaper. She had no experience leading anything. She had minimal knowledge of newspapers. She’d never been in business of any sort.  And she sank regularly into a swamp of self-doubt, often driven there by her husband prior to his suicide.

And yet, Katharine Graham decided to take control of the Washington Post Company. Three decades later, she was an icon of tough leadership in the harsh world of big-time newspapers and politics, leading a multi-million dollar media enterprise, and would soon be author of a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir. An amazing transformation of both the organization and, more importantly, the woman who led it.


What made the difference in Katharine Graham River after summer 1963? Within days, Graham realized that the newspaper was her family’s identity, especially her father’s. She refused to surrender it, refused to play a role in its death by letting go. She also found advantage in her lack of experience—using the trait as a strength rather than a weakness—which enabled her to seek key lessons from other industries and other leaders and to pursue innovations that competitors were too cautious to use. She had an unknown gift—for picking good talent and good mentors. Lastly, under it all was a much tougher and more resilient personality than anyone had ever expected, including herself.

Your life is a River. You put into the current at Point A. You pull out of the current at Point Z. The flow of time in between is the River.

Your River has different Stretches. A Stretch is a small distance within the River. In a Stretch of River you see, know, and feel a definable quality, a theme, element, action, condition, or setting, that sets it apart from the rest of the River. Maybe it’s fast water. Maybe it’s shallow water. Maybe it’s broad water with more than one choice for navigation. Maybe it rained or the wind blew. Or one of a hundred other things.

A Stretch has its own beginning and ending. That’s how you know it’s a Stretch of the River and not the entire River itself. When you enter that particular Stretch, you know it’s going to be different than before. It could be a new experience or the repeat of an experience that happened before the previous Stretch.

A Turn in the River differs from a Stretch. A Turn is short, compact, even more definable and contained than a Stretch. A Turn is all about direction, while a Stretch can be more much more. A Turn isn’t always significant. But when it is, the significance can be gigantic. As a Turn sharpens, the significance grows.

So it was for Katharine Graham. Her life could be divided into before-the-Suicide and after-the-Suicide. She never remarried. As it happened, this Turn also encompassed her formal leadership position at the Post and all of the things that emerged in her life after that time. This was a rare Turn indeed.

Have you had a Turn of similar proportions? And what will you draw upon when such a Turn arrives?