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Inside the executive suites of Murdoch, Hitler and Stalin · 9 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 – iin 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 organizational psychology, and business administration) in which I compared the executive suite of Rupert Murdoch to, amongst 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.

Andrew Neil, who was a senior lieutenant of Murdoch, including as editor of The Sunday Times in London, for eleven 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 fourteen 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.

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.

Sergo Beria thought Stalin “had not raised many intelligent people to the rank of his closest associates because he feared that such would hinder his actions. But neither could he allow himself to choose only imbeciles if he wanted results.” Murdoch is not so different. Neil recalled that “during the eleven years I was editor, Rupert fired or eased out every chief executive of real talent or independent mind-set.” Murdoch does not want any potential competitors in his executive suite.

Both Stalin and Hitler were nervous, even fearful, about newcomers – about “new faces”. Sergo Beria wrote that “above a certain level Stalin appointed only individuals he knew personally and never ceased studying them. He had one unchanging rule: one can never be too suspicious.” D’Arcy wrote that News Limited “was a closed shop and people never advanced in News Limited until loyalty to Murdoch and the company was proven”. “We are not sure of him yet” or “The jury is still out” were phrases he recalled hearing repeatedly when he wanted to promote someone. “It was almost as though, for anyone to succeed in News Limited they had to serve an apprenticeship under the culture that was unique to that organization.”

Hitler Youth leader, Baldur Shirach recalled the limits of power: “If there had been differences between Hitler and myself in the period from 1933 to 1936, Hitler could not simply have said, ‘I’m getting rid of him.’ Even in a totalitarian movement it is not the case that the boss just says, ‘That man no longer suits me, I’ll send him into the wilderness.’ Each person brings into movements like that the people he has convinced and won over. They are his private source of power.”

At times, Murdoch also needs to take account of a lieutenant’s power. Neil thought Murdoch wanted him out of “The Sunday Times but he had yet to decide if he had finished with me altogether. Moving me to America dispensed with an immediate cause of aggravation for him and placed me in alien territory where I had no power base and could be more easily controlled.”

Speer also highlighted the role the lieutenants play in contributing to the power imbalance that often increases, and eventually does them in. Referring to “every holder of power, whether the director of a company, the head of a state, or the ruler of a dictatorship”, Speer wrote: “His favour is so desirable to his subordinates that they will sue for it by every means possible. Servility becomes endemic among his entourage, who compete among themselves in their show of devotion. This in turn exercises a sway upon the ruler, who becomes corrupted in his turn. ”

Neil noted that Murdoch has “a weakness for courtiers who are fawning or obsequious. No matter how senior or talented or independent minded, courtiers must always remember two things vital to survival: they must never dare to outshine the Sun King; and they must always show regular obeisance to him to prove beyond peradventure that, no matter how powerful or important they are, they know who is boss.”

Not surprisingly, according to Neil, “those who survive longest are a group of unthreatening Australians who have been with him for years. They are the consummate ‘yes’ men, their purpose is to reinforce his judgment in decisions the Sun King has already made, to nudge him in directions he has already decided to go and to present no challenge to him.”

General Guderian recalled the genre in “a spectacle” with which he “was later to become very familiar: all those present, nodded in agreement with every sentence that Hitler uttered.” And D’Arcy recalled a similar scene: “From the top table, the News Limited group looked like cows chewing on cud, with their heads nodding up and down every time Rupert gave a message.”

While servility brings favours from “the holder of power”, it comes at a price. Neil noted that “it can be strangely oppressive, even when you agree with him: the man is never far from your mind. Rupert dominates the lives of all of his senior executives.” He “ranted” at most of his lieutenants “because he knew he could get away with it – they were prepared to put up with it.”

Neil could have been talking about Stalin or Hitler, or any number of political and business leaders who have been able to achieve domination in their executive suite – and about others who will be able to do it in the future. History does have lessons for the present and future for people who have open minds.

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