The leadership lessons of Chairman Rupert
This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.
Rupert Murdoch has endured more crises during his 80-plus years than Richard Nixon and Odysseus combined, so the CEO and chairman of News Corporation can be forgiven for seeming nonplussed by his current predicament. He took over the family newspaper business in Australia at 21, when his father died, and expanded it. He fought the British unions in 1986 and won. He repelled the bankers in 1990, when he was close to insolvency. He has survived two divorces, the purchase and sale of MySpace.com, a bunch of other digital disasters, and even the predations of John Malone, who threatens Murdoch family hegemony with his purchase of News Corp stock. And now, referencing his media empire’s latest fiasco, the British Parliament has deemed Murdoch “not a fit person” to run an international company.
If Murdoch were the sort of pompous captain of industry who collected leadership maxims, Look for Trouble would likely top his list. He craves competition, and has repeatedly bet his company on new ventures like 20th Century Fox, the Fox Network, NFL football and his satellite operations.
Most chief executives think rewarding stockholders is their primary job. Not Murdoch. The Murdoch family owns the controlling shares in the company, so the chairman can largely ignore Wall Street to pursue a strategy that stretches across decades, not quarters. Yes, he’s impulsive, but creatively so.
I asked Ken Auletta, who has covered Murdoch for almost 40 years, to distill management maxims from the CEO’s adventures. He offered Ideology Is for Amateurs, which captures Murdoch’s political agnosticism. He leans right in his utterances, but subscribes to the politics of expediency, which explains how easily he shifted in the UK from supporting the Tories to supporting Labour and back again. Auletta says Murdoch’s genuine identity is that of a businessman. If he has any ideology, it’s What’s Good for Me?
A second maxim identified by Auletta – Public Memories Are Short, So Apologies Are Inexpensive – explains his performance before the phone-hacking committee last summer, when he said, “This is the most humble day of my life.” This very insincere regret made headlines around the world and bought his company a breather as it scrambled to rebuild its defenses.
Michael Wolff spent hundreds of hours with Murdoch for his 2008 biography, The Man Who Owns the News. “Loyalty is the most important virtue in an employee – hire only people who think you did them a favor by hiring them, i.e., not people with a lot of other options,” Wolff writes in explanation of Murdoch’s practices. If your employees share your primary values and feel they owe you, you can lead them with a flick of your pinky.
“Seek Leverage over everybody you do business with – being able to punish people is an incredibly effective currency,” Wolff continues. “Listen to the voice in your own head more than to anyone else – everybody else will recommend caution; only you will take real risks.” Murdoch exhibited his faith in his own voice at the Leveson hearings in late April, when he said, “I’m under strict instructions by my lawyers not to say this, but I’m going to…” and proceeded to confess to a “cover-up” of phone hacking at News of the World. “Rupert famously doesn’t take advice,” one news story quoted an anonymous source.
A fourth maxim from Wolff makes a virtue of Selfishness. “Make it yours; keep it yours; make sure everyone knows it’s yours – be the one and only, the singular, the irreplaceable,” Wolff writes. The News Corp firings, his brisk shuttering of News of the World when the phone-hacking scandal crested last summer, and his cavalier treatment of his children (and heirs) prove that when loyalty collides with Murdoch’s agenda, his selfishness trumps all.
Although Murdoch is said to be a good boss, whenever one of his executives grows too big, he becomes an expendable rival. Roger Ailes, the mastermind behind Fox News, is the only existing exception – and he could go at any time.
Former broadcast journalist Adrian Monck, who briefly worked for Sky News (which News Corp co-owns), detects a current of Machiavellianism flowing through Murdoch’s career, specifically the sentiment expressed in this line from The Prince: “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”
“Throughout his commercial career, from Adelaide aristocracy to Manhattan moguldom, he has convinced every major protagonist that he is somehow the answer to their prayers,” Monck says. “At every step he has somehow managed to recast himself for the opportunity. Even appearing before British legislators, each appearance has been subtly different. So that would be my lesson – appear consistent and conservative, succeed through shape-shifting.”
Only a madman would embrace the Murdoch strategy in its entirety. Only the brave would apply even three of the maxims at once. For managers who find opportunity instead of terror in turmoil and don’t mind being denounced by ex-employees as a betrayer, Murdoch’s way might work. Just make sure the corporate bylaws keep you in control of the board of directors. It’s easiest to lead when you own.
Addendum, June 26: This piece was published before Murdoch addressed his 106th crisis: How to separate his tainted, money-losing newspaper division from his profitable network-cable-film-satellite operations. A split of the company is envisioned, News Corp. announced, but if I know my Murdoch, he’s constructed a trap door that will either send his enemies to the dungeon or provide for his own escape.
PHOTO: News Corporation Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch leaves with his wife, Wendi, and son Lachlan after giving evidence for the second day at the Leveson Inquiry at the High Court in London, April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Hackett