RUPERT Murdoch has endured more crises during his 80-plus
years than Richard Nixon and Odysseus combined, so the CEO and chairperson of
News Corporation can be forgiven for seeming nonplussed by his current
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
And now, referencing his media empire's latest fiasco, the
British pParliament has deemed Murdoch "not a fit person"” to run an
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 chairperson 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 distil 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 W;at'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 defences.
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 favour by hiring them, ie, not people
with a lot of other options," Wolff writes in explanation of Murdoch's
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
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.
*This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.
Addendum: 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.
News Corp has announced it will split its business in two, 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.