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Murdoch: the Sun King of the executive suite

By Jeff Schubert - posted Thursday, 5 April 2007


Several years ago I was sitting next to a prominent Australian political analyst at a luncheon and told him that I thought that knowing about people like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin could help us understand leadership in our society because such extremes exposed much that was otherwise opaque. He was dismissive of my view, saying: “I know they were bad men, and that’s enough!”

Writing about Adolf Eichmann in 1963, Hanna Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” which subsequently became a cliché that is often attached to Hitler. Leon Trotsky more directly branded Josef Stalin as a “grey, colorless mediocrity”. Presumably, for the above mentioned political analyst, such phrases suggest that there is little more worth knowing. And, I suspect, a majority of Australians would agree with him; it is much easier to think about issues outside one’s immediate orbit in terms of black and white - in terms of good and bad - than to nuance.

Luckily not all Australians are so - almost intentionally - ignorant. I was recently asked to give some lectures to students studying for masters degrees (in organisational psychology, and business administration) in which I compared the executive suite of Rupert Murdoch to, among others, Hitler and Stalin. The lectures had nothing to do with morality. They were concerned solely with the exercise of power in executive suites, whether political or business.

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Andrew Neil, who was a senior lieutenant of Murdoch, including as editor of The Sunday Times in London, for 11 years up until 1994, later wrote a very good account of the Murdoch executive suite in his book, Full Disclosure. John D’Arcy, who was a senior lieutenant to Murdoch in Melbourne in the late 1980’s, covered similar issues in his Media Mayhem. While more recent evidence is harder to come by, what there is suggests that the pictures painted by Neil and D’Arcy remain true.

Neil described Murdoch as a “Sun King” who “rules over great distances through authority, loyalty, example and fear. He can be benign or ruthless, depending on his mood or the requirements of his empire.” He described Murdoch’s “Jekyll and Hyde quality”, with fear as a management tool alternated with charm.

Stalin and Hitler also had many Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. Sure, they used fear; but it may surprise many people to know that there was also much more to it.

When the writer Emil Ludwig asked Stalin why “everybody” in his country feared him, Stalin justly rejoined: “Do you really believe a man could maintain his position of power for 14 years merely by intimidation? Only by making people afraid?” Nikita Khrushchev pointed out the reality that Stalin “didn’t simply come with a sword and conquer our minds and bodies. No, he demonstrated his superior skill in subordinating and manipulating people.”

Stalin could be charming. Lavrenti Beria’s son, Sergo, later wrote: “When he thought it necessary he was able to seduce a Field Marshal just as well as a young man. It was not enough for me to be obedient, I had to be completely with him.”

Nicholaus Below, Hitler’s longtime Luftwaffe adjutant wrote that “until the autumn of 1941” it was “rare for him to give a direct order”. “His preferred method was persuasion, so that his generals put his ideas into effect from conviction.” And, this is what Stalin wanted.

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The extent to which Murdoch uses fear may also surprise some. Neil recalled that he has a “remorseless, sometimes threatening way of laying down the parameters within which you were expected to operate”. “For much of the time, you don’t hear from Rupert. Then, all of a sudden, he descends like a thunderbolt from Hell to slash and burn all before him. Since nobody is sure when the next autocratic intervention will take place (or on what subject), they live in fear of it and try to second-guess what he would want, even in the most unimportant of matters. It is a clever way of keeping his executives off balance: they live in a perpetual state of insecurity.”

Both Stalin and Hitler could have written the management book containing this phrase.

Fear is not a one-way street. Albert Speer added additional perspective: “To the imagination of the outsider Hitler was a keen, quick, brutally governing dictator. It is difficult to believe that in reality he edged along hesitantly, almost fearfully. But that was the case.” And, indeed, this is why Hitler survived as long as he did. Ditto for Stalin.

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About the Author

Jeff Schubert is an economist, business consultant and writer. He is author of Dictatorial CEOs and their Lieutenants: Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. He is a regular commentator on Russian affairs and now lives in Moscow. Jeff is also the creator of The Little Pink Ant. His websites are: www.jeffschubert.com and www.thelittlepinkant.com. The also blogs about Russia at www.russianeconomicreform.ru/

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