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‘GMA’ anchor Robin Roberts’s lessons in storytelling, leadership, and purpose

During Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation Festival, Roberts gave inspirational words to guide you through work and life.

‘GMA’ anchor Robin Roberts’s lessons in storytelling, leadership, and purpose
[Photo: Paula Lobo/ABC via Getty Images]

For the past 16 years, Robin Roberts has served as coanchor of Good Morning America. It’s a career move that’s undoubtedly transformed her life, going from an ESPN sportscaster to sitting behind the desk of what would become the number one morning show in America for several years.

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“I love saying good morning to America. I love waking America up and having a conversation and enlightening folks,” Roberts said during Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation Festival. “But I was ready to flex another creative muscle, something different.”

That new creative muscle has been Roberts’s film and TV production company, Rock’n Robin Productions.

Founded in 2014, Rock’n Robin Productions has produced projects including Stolen by My Mother: The Kamiyah Mobley Story, a dramatic retelling of the true story of a woman who kidnaps a baby from the hospital and raises her as her own; Tuskegee Airmen: Legacy of Courage, a documentary detailing the first Black military pilots who fought in World War II; and the Emmy-nominated Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, a biopic of the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

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“Representation is so key,” Roberts said of choosing which projects to take on. “It’s wanting to see people more who look like me doing different things, educating people in a very entertaining way.”

As coanchor of GMA and president of her production company, Roberts has keyed in on both what makes for good storytelling and good leadership—and, along the way, she’s found her purpose.

Listen as well as you speak

Actor Danielle Brooks took on the mantle of Mahalia Jackson in Roberts’s production, but it wasn’t long into the process that Roberts extended the title of executive producer to Brooks, who helped develop the story and the character in key ways.

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For example, it was Brooks who pushed to show Jackson’s struggles in becoming a mother, resulting in one of the film’s most profound scenes where Jackson suffered a miscarriage after performing at Carnegie Hall.

“The film would not have been the same,” Roberts said. “We were like, ‘We didn’t have that in originally. It means a lot to you. We can see how it would add [to the story.]’ So that’s what this is all about. When it comes to storytelling, it’s not just talking—it’s listening. We don’t listen to one another enough.”

Roberts also wants her stories to evoke a response in the audience strong enough to elicit change—something she learned from her ABC News colleague Diane Sawyer.

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“She was the one who told me, this is the hallmark of good storytelling: that the story creates a reaction that leads to action, that you react to the story, and then you want to take action whatever it is,” Roberts said.

“But I think there is no real formula,” she went on to say. “And that’s what the beauty of storytelling is. Everybody has a different approach to it—just like we all have a different approach to leadership.”

The 3 Cs (and 1 E) of leadership

Although Roberts has been a leader in her own right, leading GMA and Rock’n Robin Productions, she says ABC News president Kim Godwin, who came into the position in May, has given her a valuable framework for how she views true leadership.

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“I’m going to share with you the three Cs,” Roberts said. “Confidence, as a good leader, you have confidence. You’ve done your homework. You know can do the job. Courage. You have the courage. You got to make some tough decisions. People may not like them, but you have to have the courage. The third C, clarity. How many times have we, as little ol’ workers, feel like we’re in the dark? Just let me know what’s going on.”

As a bonus, Roberts offered one more letter that’s just as important.

“It doesn’t start with a C, but empathy—especially what we’ve gone through this last year,” she said.

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Roberts also noted that having empathy should also extend to being empathetic with yourself.

“Self-care is not being selfish,” Roberts said. “You gotta be good to you, if we’ve learned nothing through Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka for standing up and saying what they have and opening up a conversation about mental wellness.”

State your purpose

Throughout her career, as well as her health challenges (Roberts survived breast cancer in 2008, only to have to fight back the bone marrow disease, myelodysplastic syndrome, four years later), Roberts says her purpose has crystalized into being a messenger.

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“Not to borrow from Michelle Obama, but I’m always becoming. People say you only live once. I say, no, you only die once—you live every day,” Roberts said. “There are people who have been drawn to my resilience going through the health concerns and other things that I’ve shared with people. And I want to say, I’m just this big mirror. All the things that you say about me, I’m a reflection. You have it within yourself.”

And to those still struggling to find their purpose?

“God’s delays are not denials,” Roberts replied. “What I would ask you to do is to turn around and look at all those mountains you’ve already scaled. Why do you think this new mountain in front of you, you can’t scale it? Remember what you’ve already done. If you’re struggling and feel like you’re trying to figure out your purpose, or this, that, and the other, sometimes you just gotta be still. You gotta be still and know and trust. And when fear knocks, and it does all the time, let faith answer the door.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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