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.