Breakdown of Leadership Greatness – Meryl Streep Plays Katharine Graham

Prefer to watch rather than readClick here – 7 minutes with captions.

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It’s time again to break down a movie scene – this is from Steven Spieberg’s The Post, the true story of legendary leader of the Washington Post Katharine Graham.  She’s played by the also legendary Meryl Streep, it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, and I go through the key scene of the film and show the key elements to her leadership using the four elements of Peter Koestenbaum’s  Leadership Diamond.

So…this one is best watched on video, which you can do by clicking here.


The Washington Post was given by Katharine (Kay) Graham’s father to her husband Phil, who then died.  This left Kay in charge of the paper in 1963 at the age of 46 with four sons, when her last regular work was 21 years earlier.  And while we have a long way to go in terms of equality and inclusivity for women here in 2021, we were even further behind back then.

The movie centres around the events of 1969 and the Pentagon Papers.  This was a huge report commissioned by the US Government to record the story of the Vietnam War and in these papers was evidence that the Government had not been open with the public on the involvement in Vietnam.  The New York times first got hold of these papers, published some, then were hit with an injunction when the Government took them to the Supreme Court

Meanwhile, the Washington Post also had the papers and had been told by the Attorney General to not publish them.  Which lead to a huge decision as publishing the papers risked that the injunction would be considered to have applied to them…and thus exposing Kay, and the paper to criminal indictment.

At the same time Kay was looking to float the company to raise capital to move it well beyond being a local endeavour.  A criminal indictment would not do much for the share price for the original share issue.

Decision Time

All of this came down to a brilliant scene in the movie The Post, with Kay literally surrounded by men in suits, Board members and lawyers, pressing her to not print and so not risk indictment and the tanking of the share issue this would cause.

This decision actually happened, although in real life it was Kay and the Chair of the Board at one end having stepped out of a party for a retiring employee, and the Board members at the other.  The Hollywood scene is a little more exciting.

Here’s what we see from Kay, but first, a little about the work of Peter Koestenbaum.

Peter Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond

Peter Koestenbaum is a philosopher by trade.  He deals in metaphysics, the nature of reality and other such casual issues.  He also focuses on the concept of accountability, ethics and what this means in the workplace, which lead to his development of The Leadership Diamond.  It’s four elements show the traits, or requirements, or necessities for what he calls leadership ‘greatness’.

And the Diamond is exactly what Kay showed in the scene.

Facing Reality

The Board Members hit her early with what’s going on – the threat of indictment, the problems that would cause to the share issue, and that going to jail is simply not great!  Through this, Kay listens, we can see she is mentally and emotionally drained, and she simply says “I know”.

Reality is one of the elements of the Leadership Diamond. Seems obvious – we can’t lead if we don’t know where we are, yet it’s very easy to turn away.  “The brand will get us through”, “let’s not jump at shadows”, “I’ve seen this before” are common ways this is done, and it is a natural self-protection mechanism of us humans to first deny.

But this doesn’t cut it for leadership, and Kay most definitely faces up.


I like Koestenbaum’s version of ethics – serving the greater good.  The opposite of serving only oneself.  Early in the piece we see Kay talking about the responsibility to employees, to shareholders – thinking well beyond herself.  Then later, she directly asks her editor about whether printing the papers will in any way endanger “our soldiers” – those earning the hourly wage working for the paper.

Consideration of all stakeholders, especially those most vulnerable.. a simple basis for Ethics.  Without this, no leader can be trusted, which is why it’s one of the parts of the Diamond.  Kay does it effortlessly, and deliberately.


Kay understands the ramifications of printing.  She knows it probably doesn’t make sense.  Then, after quietly saying “however….” she literally stands up to break free of the men standing over her.  Now moving, she speaks of the mission of the paper: “outstanding news collecting and reporting”  and that the newspaper will be “dedicated to the welfare of the nation and the principles of a free press”.

This is her turn from Reality to Vision – another element of the Diamond.  She puts right on the table her vision for what the paper is, what it stands for, and makes it clear that this is very much a part of the decision too.

The two aspects of Reality and Vision are almost the nuts and bolts of leadership.  Where we are, and where we are going.  It really is that simple…but that doesn’t make it easy.  And because it’s not easy, that’s where the other element comes in, which is…


The courage to make the decisions that are sound in the context of Reality and Ethics that will take us toward our Vision.

Kay shows what we could call micro-courage by shutting down a Board Member (male, as was everyone else in the room) who tries to speak over the top of her.  Then, when the same Board Member suggests she is threating legacy, she calmly strips him down by pointing out that the paper has been in her family for longer than anyone working there.  Then she goes further by claiming her power – “it’s no longer my father’s company, it’s not longer my husband’s company…it’s my company”.

In this statement, she is courageously assuming the responsibility for the decision.  It will be on her shoulders, and she will wear the consequences.

And then…after one last confirmation that the employees won’t be in danger…she decides to print. This is the moment.  Ethics, and the Vision of the paper required it.

Courage personified.

If she had a mic, she could have dropped it, because she then calmly exits the room, leaving the men in suits in her wake.

The Diamond

Peter Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond gives us a simple yet powerful way to see what leadership requires of us.  Almost like a checklist.  The facing of Reality, the having and communicating a Vision, the need for Ethical actions, and the Courage to act and not give in….

Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep gave us a brilliant scene that did justice the talents of Kay Graham.

Epilogue – How Kay Did

And if you’re wondering how she did – William Thorndike’s book The Outsiders is about eight CEOs whose performance over decades makes traditional ‘hero’ Jack Welch come across like a backmarker.  One of them was Kay Graham, the only woman in charge of a Fortune 500 company when she started, and her performance looked like this.

If you had invested a dollar with Kay when the Post was floated, when Kay left, it would be worth $89.  This was 18 times better than the market, and if you think that’s because the media industry  has been huge…her value was six times that of the others in her industry.

Kay Graham was a superstar, she attracted Warren Buffet to work alongside her for a number of years.  And perhaps the best of all, Ben Bradlee, who she controversially brought into the Post to replace their traditional editor, and who played a key role in the publishing of the Pentagon Papers said;

“She was just so much fun”.

She did it with style.

Reality, Vision, Ethics and Courage. 

You won’t find a better example of Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond than Katharine Graham.

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