A word about leadership

And one reason Dow Jones lost the war

Warren H. Phillips, a former longtime CEO of Dow Jones & Co., wrote a letter to the New York Times’s editor last week offering a different perspective from that of Joe Nocera, a Times business columnist, who called DJ “the worst run” media company, “one giant disaster,” etc. Nocera’s is more or less The Audit’s perspective.

Not to make too much of it, but the letter was ill-advised and revealed, I think, a lot more than it intended.

Phillips says DJ was ranked among America’s Ten Most Admired Companies from 1983-1987; that he himself was named CEO of the Decade by Financial World and “the best chief executive in the publishing industry” by sixty media specialists, according to The Wall Street Transcript, and that the The Wall Street Journal’s Web site won the Codie Award for “Best Online News Service.” Peter Kann, meanwhile, was honored as CEO Innovator of the Year by B2B in 2005.

True, Phillips cites some substantive accomplishments—DJ does have the Web’s largest paid subscription—but he relies almost exclusively on external validation—awards, etc.—and from a pretty sad group at that. I have no idea what a “Codie” is.

Phillips says DJ achieved record revenue and earnings under him and Kann, but doesn’t say revenue is down 30% from a 1997 peak of $2.6 billion, and that DJ would take until last year, December 2006, to earn back $800 million written down the same year.

That DJ is a business failure is no longer in question now that News Corp.’s bid has exposed its vulnerability. I don’t think the importance of straight talk from a newspaper company is properly understood.

As it happens, I’m reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant these days. Put it this way, I hope I’m never compared to him. It’s not fair. But this 19th century man has much to teach us.

Grant had one goal, the survival of the union, which he refers to simply as “the cause.” For him, “effective” and “efficient,” probably next to “brave,” are the highest compliments. Sheridan, for instance, is “efficient” in the capture of Corinth, Mississippi, a vital rail center, and is promoted in the field. Poorly performing officers are summarily relieved.

There were no Codie Awards back then. Here’s what Grant has to say about Sherman’s taking of Atlanta:

“There was but little if anything in the whole campaign, now that it is over, to criticize at all, and nothing to criticize severely.”

Sure, he also calls the battle “one of the most memorable in history,” but the point is he knew Sherman didn’t need a lot of praise. The results spoke for themselves.

And here’s what he said to say about the performance of a certain Colonel Murphy, whose garrison at Holly Springs, Mississippi, was overrun by the Confederacy’s General Van Dorn.

Van Dorn did not succeed in capturing a single garrison except the one at Holly Springs, which was larger than all the others attacked by him put together. Murphy was also warned of Van Dorn’s approach, but made no preparation to meet him. He did not even notify his command.

After considering various factors, Grant comes to this conclusion:

The surrender of Holly Springs was most reprehensible and showed either the disloyalty of Colonel Murphy to the cause which he professed to serve, or gross cowardice.

Again, almost every leader, business or otherwise, will suffer in comparison to Grant. But in case anyone is wondering, that’s what one sounds like.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.