Where Rupert Murdoch’s blame ends and ours begins

July 26, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on Rupert Murdoch’s handling of the News Corp. scandal — with opinion pieces by Tuck School of Business Professor Paul A. Argenti, London Business School Dean Sir Andrew Likierman, and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Marty Linsky.

Ah, the schadenfreude. Ah, the piling on. Ah, the avalanche of clichés: “live by the sword, die by the sword”, “reap what you sow”. It goes on and on.

Is it possible in this media frenzy—one that so eerily parallels Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.’s own journalistic practices—to take a dispassionate view of the man as seen through a leadership lens?

Being successful in business has nothing inherently to do with leadership, but for most people that’s where any assessment of Murdoch’s “leadership” begins. By all the typical measures, he is enormously successful and has exhibited many of the qualities such a role demands: brains, vision, persistence, focus. He took one modest newspaper that his father left him when he was 23 years old and turned it into an empire that made him No. 117 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people (and an even more impressive No. 13 on its list of the world’s most powerful people). Not bad. Score one for Murdoch. A+ on this dimension. 

How about crisis management? Crisis management is also confused with leadership, even though—like firefighters rush into a burning building to save people—it’s part of the job description. Nevertheless, people will examine Murdoch’s performance during this crisis and make judgments about his “leadership”. He seems to have done everything his shareholders and the public would want him to do: diffuse the crisis and preserve as much as possible of his reputation, News Corp.’s stock price and the corporate empire. He closed the offending newspaper, the News of the World. He fired or accepted the resignation of key lieutenants who were closer to the action than he was. He humbled himself before Parliament and allowed the politicians to display their hypocritical self-righteous anger. He certainly deserves no worse than an A-.

However, these high marks for his business acumen and his crisis management do not begin to tell the story of Murdoch’s leadership. On at least two key dimensions of leadership, his record is less glowing.

First, an essential manifestation of leadership is the capacity to adapt to new and challenging realities. Murdoch’s News Corp. has been unwilling, or unable, to find its way into the biggest new reality facing the industry, the onset of the digital age. He has been slow to respond. By his own declaration, he loves his newspapers and his emotional commitment to them is certainly a corporate constraint on growth and adaptation. At least one of his belated but significant forays into the world of new media was a commercial and financial disaster: He bought MySpace for $580 million in 2005 and sold it this July for a mere $35 million. The failure of his organization as a whole to adapt its business value proposition to new technology has been a huge problem that can only get worse.

A second essential element of leadership is to protect the voices of dissent. Either no one in the organization thought hacking into Milly Dowler’s cell phone and publishing what they found while she was still missing was wrong and over the line, or people realized it was wrong but knew that raising the issue internally would do nothing but get them into trouble. Murdoch created an organizational culture where people’s sensitivities were numbed or where no challenge to authority was permitted. In either case, the fault lies with Murdoch himself. Like many other highly successful visionaries (the great parks and roadway builder Robert Moses comes to mind), Murdoch surrounded himself with yes-men and yes-women, including members of his family, who are not allowed to raise tough questions or challenge his authority.

Those are leadership failures of the highest order, and they led him to where he is today.  

However, before we enjoy our schadenfreude, there is another leadership issue at play here: one not about an individual, Murdoch, but about the broader system that so many of us colluded in creating.  

The hacking of Milly Dowler’s cell phone occurred in 2002, nearly ten years ago. When it surfaced a few weeks ago, we responded with outrage. The hacking was not only presumptively illegal, but it went beyond any imaginable standards of common decency. 

Nevertheless, for the intervening period of time we readers and viewers of Murdoch’s brand of journalism ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner—whether it was the bias of Fox News, the dumbing down of the Wall Street Journal or, yes, the sleazy tabloid coverage of politicians, royals and famous people that could only have been obtained by some likely illegal or unsavory activity. Murdoch was only delivering what we he knew we were asking for from watching our behavior, not listening to our words.

It reminds me of Rudy Giuliani’s fight against crime as mayor of New York City. We wanted him to makes the city safer, and we did not want to know how he did it. Giuliani wanted to make us happy (to boost his political career), so he told the police department to just get it done. New Yorkers enjoyed the freedom from the reduction in crime, just as Murdoch’s customers and advertisers enjoyed the fruits of News Corporation’s journalistic practices. Then came revelations of the police brutalizing and sodomizing Abner Louima in 1997. As with the Milly Dowler phone hacking, when we were forced to face up to what it took to bring us those benefits, we expressed outrage and blamed the individuals involved rather than looking into the mirror. 

Murdoch, like Giuliani, was just delivering what we wanted. But what we needed, in both cases, was a sense of restraint—one that would undoubtedly have pleased us less, and made them less popular and less successful than they were.

Marty Linsky is co-founder of the global leadership development practice Cambridge Leadership Associates, and has been on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School for more than 25 years, teaching about both the media and leadership.

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