Leadership: I’m not responsible

One after the other, Rupert Murdoch, his kids, executives and collaborators – including top cops – uttered the words, or slight variations on them. “I’m not responsible!”
They were, however, all leaders of large media enterprises, policing establishments and in politics. “People let us down,” they said as they drove “responsibility” ever down the hierarchy of their respective organisations. They were, to man and woman, personally “shocked, ashamed, appalled even humiliated” but they were definitely not “responsible”.
It was like that line from Michael Corleone in The Godfather when he asked: “Who gave the order?” What he wanted to know of course was, who to hold responsible for an act of betrayal. He needed to justify, to himself at least, decision he had already made to blow someone away. Redundant employees at Murdoch’s now stilled News of the World could, perhaps, be excused for making Godfather figure comparisons.
Leadership is about taking responsibility – particularly when things go awry. Given the kinds of leaders they are, the Murdochs et al, will now follow standard procedure and rely on the best paid lawyers to “prove” the legal limitations of their responsibility. Oh dear, remember Feltex anyone?
Leadership responsibility is, it seems, creeping ever sideways. With legal aid, leadership is becoming an equivocation. Former US president Harry Truman’s sign “The Buck Stops Here” could, the way things are going, carry on to say “… if I asked you to do it, knew you were doing it, or should have figured it out”.
But the legalities of leadership responsibility are not what this month’s column is about. It’s about something more basic. Murdoch, the board of News Corporation and the company’s most senior executives are responsible because they set the behaviour standards and germinated the culture that delivered the hacking practices at the heart of this sorry episode.
The Murdochs’ no-doubt scornful attitude toward tosser twaddle like this is best, if unwittingly, summed up in son James’ comment that he didn’t know what was going on because, “after all the NoW only accounted for one percent of the Group’s income”. Let’s get our bloody priorities right here mate.
The complicit silence of the independent directors of the News Corp board is also deafening. Murdoch, as the leader of this pack, prefers to lead by deploying rather more primitive but highly effective leadership approach – fear. It has served him well. Only at age 80 is he staring down major defeat. And he’s not dead yet.
Rupert Murdoch’s approach to leadership defined both him and his enterprise. It also defines those who kow tow to him and to leaders who emulate him. And don’t think he is an exception – he just happens to have higher profile than most. New Zealand has its share of similar style leaders.
Those in his organisation that he now accuses of letting him down had little choice. They did what he and his executives demanded, implicitly if not explicitly. The company had to sell papers to make the money the family and shareholders needed to perpetuate the enterprise. The fact that it sucked in Britain’s top police, senior ranking politicians including the Prime Minister, and others is simply collateral damage.
No question, good leaders delegate responsibility. But not without stipulating and living the standards and values he or she wants followed. That, of course, is what Murdoch did – just happens that his values aren’t that sweetly crafted.
Of all the Murdoch spectacles the world has been forced to witness over the years, the procession of leaders who felt compelled to blame others was the most saddening – from Britain’s Police Commissioner down. Rupert and his son illustrated the ultimate weakness of threatening leadership. They also showed their personal misconceptions of the nature of power.
Authority and responsibility travel together. To blame subordinates is just another way of saying, “I am not leader.” The split between authority and responsibility is widespread and increasingly common in organisations today. I hate to harp, but please remember Feltex.
A leader, according to Jonathan Wallace, writer on the subject, is “simultaneously relay, communicating the values of group, an amplifier, intensifying them, and transmitter broadcasting values when they are needed”. What News Corporation’s leaders do, however, is relay, amplify and transmit portfolio of values that the world’s media can do without.
Unfortunately, because they have been financially successful, another message spreads. That message says organisational leadership sans values, based on fear and without acceptance of responsibility, works.
Hopefully the outcome of this will be something which demonstrably proves that organisations without proper leadership, don’t last. M

Reg Birchfield is NZ Management’s consulting editor and writer-at large. [email protected]

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