What’s surprising about Rebekah Brooks’ resignation Friday as head of News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper operations isn’t that it happened, but that it took until now for it to occur. And not necessarily because she is at fault.
Rather, it’s hard to believe because, as editor of the now-defunct News of the World during the time the tabloid allegedly hacked the cell phone of a murdered 13-year-old girl, Brooks has been the subject of much criticism by everyone from Britain’s most powerful to her own employees. And now the Murdoch family, including Rupert’s daughter Elisabeth who is said to have privately railed against Brooks, is reportedly furious over how the scandal has been handled. It is customary for a leader like Brooks amid that much turmoil to step aside for the good of the organization, even if she turns out to be completely in the clear.
Although it’s hard to believe any editor worth the ink on their hands didn’t ask how their reporters got such big scoops, it’s certainly possible her defense of ignorance will hold up. Brooks says in her resignation letter that she feels “a deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt” and she “believed that the right and responsible action has been to lead us through the heat of the crisis.” While those intentions may be one reason she’s stayed on as critiques mounted, the biggest reason she was still around was the support she’s had from her friend and boss, Rupert Murdoch.
The media mogul has professed his steadfast support for Brooks, whom he’s said in the past is like a favorite daughter to him. When asked by the news media on Sunday what his priority was, Murdoch said “this one,” gesturing to Brooks. There have been smiling photos taken of the two of them together in recent days. Apparently she even already offered her resignation before Friday, but was refused by Murdoch (or his son, News Corp. deputy chief operating officer James Murdoch). In her resignation letter, she says, “While it has been a subject of discussion, this time my resignation has been accepted.”
I understand the pride leaders feel in watching the executives whose careers they’ve shaped reach positions of power—and the protective instinct they feel to keep them from harm. Loyalty to one’s employees is in many ways a good instinct for leaders to have, following through on the trust that has been built over years working closely together. To throw someone under the bus at the first sign of trouble is hardly good leadership.
But in Brooks’ case, Murdoch has taken those instincts to the extreme. Through a forceful combination of tenacity and confidence, Brooks came out of nowhere to become a powerful executive in Murdoch’s empire, rising from a secretary at the News of the World to its editor in just 11 years, before running sister tabloid The Sun and going into corporate leadership. Such a meteoric rise is sure to give Murdoch a sense of loyalty and pride that goes beyond his feelings for most employees or for other leaders whose careers he hasn’t helped to shape so closely. In addition, the two were reportedly very close socially—she was friends with the Murdoch family, and both of them socialized with Prime Minister David Cameron. “Rupert Murdoch adores her—he’s just very, very attached to her,” The New York Times quoted a social acquaintance of both as saying.
While I understand the instinct to defend the people you’ve worked in the trenches with for so long, leaders’ knee-jerk reaction to wholeheartedly support the person in question comes with plenty of risk. You see it over and over again: A board of directors comes out saying that a CEO “has the board’s full confidence,” rattling off his or her great qualities, only to look out to lunch when the CEO resigns amid controversy days later. We see a government official defend an aide, bending over backwards to say how ethical the person is just before the aide suddenly, abruptly admits to doing wrong and steps down.
I never get why leaders don’t just say, “The matter is being investigated, and until the investigation is completed, we’ll back the executive in question.” A little bit of support is necessary, and it helps leaders to not look disloyal. But the all-too-common full-throated defense that comes out before all the facts have surfaced puts the top leader’s credibility at risk. For most leaders, I’d guess the protective instinct comes from the gut, and is hard to ignore when crisis strikes. But in Murdoch’s case, the close relationship and apparent paternalism made it even harder—and should be a reminder of the danger of letting professional relationships get too close.
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