O ne of the key attributes of great leaders is the ability to speak the truth. Pioneering broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.” Murrow, known for his integrity and willingness to tackle controversial topics, understood that the foundation of trust is the ability to speak the truth. My interviewee this week, Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB), has spent his career in journalism and learned early on the value of speaking truth as a leader. Agnew grew up in very modest circumstances in Saltillo, Miss. Even though both of his parents only had an elementary education, they were able to provide a college education for eight of their nine children including Agnew who graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in broadcasting.
Agnew began his journalism career at the Greenwood Commonwealth where he worked for the owner, John Emmerich. Agnew noted, “John was an example of what a true newspaper man should be. He saw the newspaper as a driving force for what the city should be, the paper helped to set the community agenda for the things that were uncomfortable (education, jobs, unemployment). He instilled the thought of ‘community journalism’ in my career.” As a young leader with a Cincinnati, Ohio-based newspaper paper, Agnew was first put in a leadership position. He shared, “At age 27, I became the assistant city editor. I was responsible for supervising other writers who cover your topics. I learned to supervise people twice my age, and I also learned to stand my ground and deal with challenges.” Agnew’s 27-year career in the newspaper business allowed him to serve in a variety of leadership roles with different organizations including serving as executive editor of The Clarion Ledger, which is owned by Gannet Co.
Agnew acknowledged that one of his professors at Ole Miss had a significant influence on his career when he told him that “your true gift of writing.” I emphasize this point because you never know what will become of a seed of truth that you plant in someone else’s life. After a distinguished career in the newspaper business, Agnew decided to accept the position of executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting in 2011. In this role, he directs the three primary areas that form the agency’s mission: Emergency preparedness and response, economic impact media and educational resource development for all projects.
During his leadership journey, Agnew has learned some powerful truths that he tries to live out in his daily life as a leader. He knows that whenever you serve in a leadership position that people are always watching with scrutiny. He said, “The people that you lead don’t expect you to be an expert in everything, but they expect you to be fair and go to bat for them in the time of disagreement.” Agnew realistically acknowledged that we will all make people mad at times, particularly as a journalist. He said, “I learned that it is important not to back down to readers’ complaints. You will learn and gain respect from holding strong.” This is equally true as leaders. You can’t please everyone, but if you act with integrity and consistency you can earn people’s respect even if they disagree with you.
The MPB has been a great resource for the state of Mississippi since it first hit the airwaves in 1970.I remember spending hours as a kid watching the programs that MPB’s predecessor ETV aired. Agnew brings a commitment to truth and integrity to this position and is a great steward of the leadership of this organization.
» Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.