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Business Leadership and Murdoch's Fatal Flaw

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In reading about the scandal involving Rupert Murdoch, phone hacking, and his media empire, it's hard not to wonder "what the heck were they thinking?" But the real cause of this disaster didn't come from what these executives were thinking. It came from the way they were leading.

As with many of the banks in our financial scandal, the News Corporation's culture became known for two things: success and aggression. As reported in the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch's defining characteristic was the way he treated the media business as a life or death battle for power and success.

"Murdoch has never just been satisfied with besting the competition, as most decent businessmen are. He's not truly happy unless he has his foot on a competitor's neck and is pressing it downward. Felix Salmon, a blogger for Reuters, unearthed testimony about an executive who ran one of Murdoch's more obscure divisions. 'I will destroy you,' the man told a competitor, according to the testimony. 'I work for a man who wants it all and doesn't understand anybody telling him he can't have it all.'"

As much as I love writing, I'm not a journalist. Instead, I work as an executive coach. And in my work with business leaders, I've noticed that sooner or later, every leader is faced with a crucial, life defining choice: "is it more important for me to succeed or to contribute?" In other words, what is my primary goal in business? Is it just to win and make money? Or is it to find ways where I can make a positive difference?

This isn't an either/or question. It's a question of priorities. You have to want to succeed in business. Competition and profitability are essential aspects of the game. And as Joe Nocera points out, even an overwhelming drive to succeed can be natural and healthy when we're young.

But true leadership means moving beyond the desire to win at all costs. It means holding on to the desire to win, but making that secondary to a new desire: the joy that comes from making a positive difference. It means finding a higher purpose -- a greater reason for why we get up and go to work each day -- something more than just increasing our piles of possessions and power.

Your higher purpose could be to improve the lives of your customers, to turn the challenges of leadership into opportunities for personal growth, or to develop a culture that brings out the best in your people. It could be to give back to your community, to create something the world's never seen before, or to mentor up and coming leaders. There are many choices. What's yours?

When we see an executive featured in a corporate scandal, it's usually because they became addicted to success. They fell into the trap of defining their self worth by how much money, fame and power they possessed. And sooner or later, this addiction consumed them.

In contrast, authentic leaders have developed a healthy respect for their addictions. They recognize just how seductive success can be. They know just how easy it is to become corrupted by power. They understand just how difficult it is to walk the line between true self confidence and arrogance. And because of this, they choose to surround themselves with people who can help them deal with these challenges instead of exacerbating them.

The problem is that it's a rare executive who's able to slow down long enough to really deal with this question consciously. Instead, in the face of the never ending pressure to compete harder, change faster and soar higher, many executives just give in to the demands of the moment. Their higher priorities keep getting put off until tomorrow, while the urgent demands of success keep getting honored today.

I doubt that Jeffrey Skilling woke up one day and decided that he wanted to defraud an entire industry. And I doubt that Rupert Murdoch woke up one day and decided that he wanted to build an empire based on replacing honest journalism with "gossip, sensationalism and manufactured controversy."

There's a reason why we say that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Authentic leadership doesn't just happen. It requires discipline, courage, self-awareness, and external support. It requires shifting from thinking that leadership is about having all the right answers, to realizing that it's more about asking the right questions. And it requires discovering that above all else, it's our blind spots we need to watch out for.

Because when an executive gets brought down by a big scandal, they usually don't have any idea what hit them -- until it's too late.