Of all the stories of great business leaders who crashed and burned, there are few tales more compelling than that of Rupert Murdoch.
The CEO of News Corporation – one of the most powerful media companies in the world – was incredibly wealthy and considered widely to be wildly successful in his business ventures. That was until 2011, when the world learned that one of his premiere holdings, News of the World, had been illegally hacking the mobile phones and voicemail of prominent British citizens, and then reporting the details.
As I discuss in some detail in my book, The Leadership Contract, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal a new picture of Murdoch and his leadership style began to take shape. Although he was never what anyone would call a quiet leader, his brash and sometimes abusive manner was laid out for everyone to see.
Ultimately, when forced to account for the illegalities of the executives at his newspaper, Murdoch claimed they acted without his knowledge. Few, if any believed him, and a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal accused him of “wilful blindness.”
More importantly, the ease with which he threw his executive team under the bus demonstrated some fundamental flaws in his leadership style. Murdoch is now widely considered to be a very flawed but financially successful leader.
The Murdoch story offers great insight into a huge misconception about leadership. In short, most of us equate great leadership with great performance. The reality, as Murdoch demonstrated, is that bottom line success does not always equal good leadership.
In fact, in my work with leaders and executive teams, I’ve come to learn that sometimes organizations succeed despite poor leadership.
I call this the Weird Law of Leadership: for every great leader who leads a successful company, there are many more bad leaders who are also leading successful companies. It shouldn’t be the case, but it does happen. And that’s pretty weird.
It’s important to realize that when it comes to leadership, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Just because a company is successful as measured by revenues, profits and ROI calculations, one can’t conclude that it’s a function of great leadership.
You might ask, ‘How is this even possible?’
Sometimes market forces come together in a way that creates circumstances that make profits easy to attain. It’s almost as if a company enjoys its success by accident. Often they have the right product or service at just the right time and the marketplace rewards them.
Other times a company may hitch a ride on a huge economic cycle of growth. No matter what you do, you will grow because everyone is making more and selling more. I worked with one company years ago in the midst of a growth wave. At least in this instance, the CEO was humble enough to recognize that his company’s success wasn’t about him. He said to me once, “we can have monkey’s running this company and we’d still be making money.”
To me this CEO showed real strength, which was reflected in this brave moment of self-awareness.
I’ve also seen bad leaders take full credit for their company’s success, even when it isn’t justified. When we buy into our hype, and convince ourselves that we’re better than we really are, we often neglect the hard work that great leaders must perform on a daily basis.
Does underperforming as a leader while still enjoying success seem like a pretty sweet deal to you? A little warning: Over the long term, bad leadership will always fail.
Taking into consideration the fate suffered by leaders like Rupert Murdoch, this week’s Gut Check question asks: Is your company succeeding in spite of your poor leadership?
About the Author
Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.Follow on Twitter More Content by Vince Molinaro