The frail, forlorn face of Rupert Murdoch in the news exposes the vulnerability at the heart of his News Corporation media empire: his reputation for ruthlessness. Murdoch is on the line for the phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. and faces potential bribery charges that reach to the U.S. under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He might be sued by the Bancroft family, who sold him the Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones assets, under an integrity clause included in the deal: that News Corp must preserve the integrity of DJ and all of the company's publications and newsgathering services.
Emperors, including media emperors, don't expect to be caught with their pants down. They expect to remain arms-length, letting underlings take the fall. And they certainly don't expect to be trapped by integrity clauses that require honorable behavior.
Murdoch is the latest in a series of CEOs who become the story when their companies are caught in scandals, because their rise has been accompanied by shoving, bullying, and disdain for the concerns of others. Each act of indignity lengthens the line of offended parties who are eager to join the vigilante squad seeking punishment for the moguls. LOL, other news outlets.
Remember the classic admonishment: Be careful whom you injure on the way up, because you might need their help on the way down.
Ruthlessness in pursuit of success might work for a while. But when there is the merest hint of a problem, a history of callous, cold-blooded, critical behavior means that there is no one left to lend support. The emperor, dictator, or CEO finds himself increasingly isolated and abandoned to the wolves. This happens despite success, and sometimes because of how success was achieved. It happens to results-producing CEOs pushed out of companies; for example, Mark Hurd of H-P, who fudged expense reports but whose real sin perhaps was making enemies within the company by ruthless cost-cutting rather than investment.
Speaking of investment, the best investment anyone can make at any career stage is to behave honorably and make friends. Graciousness, even in victory, goes a long way to make people want to help rather than trash when problems emerge. Integrity in all dealings means taking the interests of other parties taken into account, operating with a long-term perspective rather than short-term greed or sensationalism. Anything for a deal or anything for an advantage is just as bad as anything for a story, even if it violates moral, ethical, and legal standards.
A well-regarded financier I know routinely beats out others for deals while remaining a very gracious winner who doesn't swagger and always has a little something to share. His competitors or opponents up end up becoming his good friends, leaving open the possibility for alliances later. "Co-optition," an awkward term for knowing how to cooperate with competitors, is the operating mode in rapidly changing industries. This requires a dash of humility as well as honor and integrity.
Graciousness has benefits for survival, too. A new study of baboons reported in the New York Times shows that the number two, the beta male who is theoretically the "nice guy" rather than the alpha male bully-ruler, has lower levels of disease-causing stress hormones — and also lower than those below. Ivan Seidenberg's willingness to go from number 1 to number 2 twice — first when NYNEX, where he was CEO, merged with Bell Atlantic, and then when the successor company, Verizon, bought GTE — was associated with a leadership style responsible for the emergence of Verizon at the top of the industry and Seidenberg's long tenure as CEO. He could go from the alpha role to beta mode and back. He put the integrity of the institution above his own CEO ego.
Executives are not baboons. But sometimes they act like 800-pound gorillas, throwing their weight around. And sometimes they stumble and get crushed under their own bulk, showing that they are vulnerable like the rest of the pack. For empire-builders like Rupert Murdoch, defenders appear to be non-existent, but gorilla-hunters are everywhere. The lesson for the rest of us is to make a few more friends, avoid injuring others, and remain on an honorable course.
Contributed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor at Harvard Business School