America's Best Leaders: Q&A with Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of Fox News channel
Who is the leader, past or present, who has most inspired you?
The first [to] come to my mind [is] my grandfather on my mother's side, who was a religious man, and I used to go to church with him on Wednesday nights. He was a janitor, but he never resented anybody else's success, and he turned to God for assistance, so that was a form of leadership that I respected. My dad was a factory foreman. Good sense of humor, heart of gold, but a bit of a temper and a fighter and a tough guy. And my mother, who I had a closer relationship with as I got older than I did when I was a kid, she was just tough as nails. And she was neverI mean you had to reach for the next rung for her, you didn't please her easily. They provided some leadership.
In terms of historical figures, well, you have to look at Stonewall Jackson. He was a guy who always won with fewer resources. McClellan always had superior forces, but he overestimated the enemy and refused to engage, and Lincoln fired him. Grant was good because he came from humble beginnings and had basically failed at everything he did in his life until he got on the back of a horse and had to take people into battle, and then he rose to the occasion. One of the lessons of leadership is, when you have to rise to the occasion, do it. Never be intimidated by superior forces, and never fail to rise to the occasion when the time comes are two of the great lessons of leadership that, if you don't have those capabilities, eventually you'll be defeated.
Martin Luther King, who I knew, [was also a great leader]. At a time when racism wasand it still exists in every directionbut when you're coming out of 100 years of repression, that was a recipe to get killed. When you know you're making a decision, when ultimately the likelihood of your surviving it is not great, but you decide that the cause is more important than your life, you become a great leader. The people who have made that sacrifice, like King, they knew what they were doing. It's an astounding act of heroism.
Do you agree that there is less leadership today than there used to be?
There's less self-sacrifice today probably on a lot of people's parts. I think there are a lot of great leaders out there. You know, there are 10 companies where the CEOs should go to jail, there are 9,000 on the stock exchange where they shouldn't go to jailthey're doing a good job, they're creating jobs, they're inspiring the troops, they're feeding families, they're doing well. You see guys sitting in labs trying to solve health problems for their entire life. You look at Simon Wiesenthal, who spent his whole life hunting down people who killed the families he knew, you know, there are plenty of heroes.
I'm not sure that journalism school teaches young journalists how to recognize heroes. And most people are not heroes at everything. So when the day comes and the time comes and you rise to the occasion, you qualify. The truth is, you have to look at the individual acts of heroism committed by civilians and the military and the people who made this country great, and give them their due. And I think we live in a time when the media spends all its time tearing down heroes, when in fact we need them more than ever. I don't think there are fewer heroes. There's more opposition to heroism.
Great leaders take risks, and sometimes those turn out to be mistakes. Tell us about one of yours.
I don't want to get into personalities, but since we've started the network there've been three or four people who I had to change [whom] I had made a mistake, a bad judgment on, or I thought the show would work and it didn't. And those are painful times for me, because in many cases they're good people who, for whatever reason, I made a judgment or the show wasn't produced right, or I put 'em in the wrong time period, I did something and it could be my fault. At the same time, if you look at our business book, after nine years I think CNN and MSNBC have over 30 show titles and stars in primetime, and we have the same lineup we launched with 9 years ago. So I have made mistakes, and they were difficult ones, but I made decisions and changed them. So, it's painful to me, but it's not a bad track record.
What you have to do is make a decision. Life is very rarely a 90-10 decision. Most of the decisions I make are inside the 45-yard lines, they're not easy. There's a case on both sides. But you make the decision. The only decision that is absolutely unfixable is if you don't make a decision. Because that is a decision; not to act. And that decision, almost always, leads to some kind of failure. So you obviously try to maximize the time you have to make the decision, you make it, and as soon as you know it's a bad one make another one. The most important thing is to continue to make decisions.
Great leaders sometimes have to stay the course.
Well, I've stayed the course in terms of the decisions I've made on the air. I think if you start second-guessing yourself on the air, changing talent and programming too much, you really start chasing your tail. I rarely look at a show I put on the air for a month after I put it on. I know they're going to screw it all up and it's going to be ugly. If I start micromanaging it and terrorizing the staff, they'll never get the rhythm. I prefer to have a meeting about what I'd like to see, how it's going to work, what we're trying to achieve, and then back out. Usually four weeks or six weeks in, I'll take a look at it and say O.K., here are some quick fixes that I can see and make changes from there, but otherwise it's too panicky. You shouldn't put it out unless you have some confidence in it.
How do you empower others to become leaders?
My first job is to protect the asset and make us win on the air. My second job is to teach people to be really good at their jobs, so that makes my first job easier. So I just sort of keep that in mindprotect the product, protect the air, and teach these people how to keep it that way. And encourage them, because whenever I leave the field, I want to leave people behind who can play. That's the way I look at it.
What's your management style?
You have to manage firmly; [employees] have to know there are consequences. They have to know that you'll take consistency, pattern, intent into account, people, but you can't let down your colleagues. But it's more complex than just "You screwed up I'm going to yell at you". That just creates the kind of resentment that festers and is never very useful. For example, I have a man I have to go down and apologize to, a guy yesterday I got a little bit mad at because he gave me a flip answer, gave me a wiseass answer I wasn't ready for. I let him know he needs to grow up a little bit. I've got a lot of confidence in him, he's very strong editorially and probably a good executive some day, but every once in a while he's got a little arrogance and a little lip in him, and I spanked him a little yesterday. But I'll go down in a while to make sure he's O.K. He's one of the best we've got, just has to grow up a little.
You've just taken on the chairmanship of the Fox Station Group as well as Fox News. How do you handle all of the demands on your time?
I don't know how we get it all done; there is a lot. I think all my training in live television probably helps a lot with what I do now. In the '60s, television was all live. You couldn't put a sign up and say, "We're not ready, come back in three." You just had to go, and that's what I do now. I'm just ready to go.
We're a pretty flat organization, so if anybody needs to meet with me, or needs to meet with each other, they're all authorized to have their own meetings and make decisions. They're all experienced hands and know how to do that. There are 15 meetings a day going on, whoever they think needs to be in it, and then somebody will inform me of what's happening, or, if they want my input or a decision, they'll give me the facts, present the options and I'll make a call and we move on. I try to keep all meetings to the shortest possible time. We don't dither around much.
There's work everywhere I go here, but it's fine. My assistant Judy will get rid of 30 percent of it for me. This morning when I came in I gave Gina, my secretary, and Judy, my executive assistant, probably 35 percent of the stuff that has to get done but I don't personally have to do. They know me, they know what to do, they'll go do it. The secret every morning is to get your workload down under 70 percent to start with, and then start dealing with what you need to deal with. And prioritize and reprioritize all day, that's all.
I'm at my desk by 7:30 in the morning and I try to get home by 6:30 or 7 at night. But I often have phone calls in the evenings and weekends. It's not very productive if you put in more than 10 or 12 hours; I think you start to lose your edge. Weekends, I carry a bag of reading and read it wherever I am, but I also think you're good at this job if you do other things.
You seem to be deeply involved in every aspect of the operation.
Well, there aren't many parts of the business I haven't worked in. But here's the way it'll read if anything goes wrong: "Former Nixon aide Ailes completely screws up News Channel." If you're [in] my job, you know what it's going to read like in the press the next day, so you try to anticipate when it's going to end.
It all goes back to Nixon!
The press can't let go of it. Nobody ever writes the factsfour months, freelance, no input on politics, TV producer, chance to get out of Philadelphia and come to New York. That was the entirethat was my career with Nixon. But to read it in the New York Times, you'd think I was planning Watergate about five years before it happened.
What separates the excellent leaders from the merely competent?
There are different kinds of leaders. There are inspirational leaders, tactical leaders, strategic leaders. And sometimes the best have all of those elements in their personality and they know when to use them.
I've had the good fortune of working for two great ones. Jack Welch was one of the great corporate leaders at GE. He inspired you, he had a sense of mission. And he really focused my mind on something I knew, which was that winning is fun, but you have to love to win and hate to lose at the same time. Jack was a great corporate leader.
Rupert [Murdoch] is a great corporate leader, in a more entrepreneurial style, because he owns the company too. Jack is sort of a corporation guy, with that corporate structure. And Rupert is sort of a gut-instinct entrepreneur. They're two obviously great leaders, just based on their track records. If you'd invested in GE when Jack took over and sold when he left, you'd have done all right. Rupert's the same way. Takes over a small paper in Adelaide, Australia, and ends up media king of the world. That takes an awful lot of something that's not often ascribed to Rupert: talent. You have to have talent, to pick people, to pick businesses, to understand markets, to move from continent to continent and succeed wherever you go. There's a real talent, a gift in that.
The hardest part of leadership is eliminating normal fear. There's always a fear of failure and most of us are trained to avoid it. Everybody's mother told them to get a teaching degree so they'd have something to fall back on. My parents, like everybody in that era, they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. But once I'd dug ditches and put in guardrail and sewer pipe, and didn't hate it, I already had something to fall back on. I never thought about it again, because I actually didn't hate that work, so I always thought 'Well, if all else fails, I can still do that'. And that gave me a great deal of confidence.
What's the primary thing you look for when you're hiring?
I can't stand negative people. Negative people will bring you down. Life's tough and then you die, and the first 100 years in the ground is just the beginning. I mean, it's just not a good time to get depressedit's gonna, it could get worse later. And if you can't manage to be positive in a job interview, chances are not great that it's going to get better anytime soon. If you run into people who are negative, and always telling you that the cat got ran over, and you couldn't get the car started and you've got a cold, the suits are idiots and life isn't fair, you know, you need to get away from those people because they will suck you under and hold you down and drown you.
What are your deficiencies, and how do you address them?
[laughing] I don't want my competitors to know! If they can't find my weaknesses, good. That will be useful in the next fight. But I have plenty. I'm human, I make dumb moves and do stupid things. I'm too sentimental.
That's surprising. I've got a long list of adjectives people have used to describe you, and sentimental is not one of them.
Well, that's true, but usually they're people who've already gotten their ass kicked by me, so you have to take that into account as to why they're using these words. Let's hear what they are?
- ProsperousWell, that was never my goal
- PugnaciousI'll fight if encouraged
- CombativeYeah, that's justified in some circumstances
- BlusteringI don't like that word. It sounds as if it's somebody who doesn't intend to follow through. I never threaten and I never don't intend to follow through. Guys who use that word, they wish. If my voice goes up, it doesn't mean I'm blustering, it means we need to come to some accommodation soon, because I will follow through.
- ConservativeDoes that mean politically or personally? I've taken a lot of risks in my life that would argue that I'm not conservative. But nobody in 40 years has ever asked my position on a specific issue, so they have no way of knowing what my political position is.
Nobody has ever asked?
They assume because I work for certain people that I must be conservative.
So, I'll ask. What do you think of gay marriage?
I think the word "marriage" is already taken. I don't think you can have a gay table . . . that word's taken. And marriage is taken too. It means a union between a man and a woman. I have no problem with gays coming up with another word and do what they want, that is not my business, but that word is taken.
What about evolution versus intelligent design?
I'm not an expert in this area. But, what I believe is, people say the whole idea of God up in heaven, the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth and all that, is too fantastic to believe. I'll tell you what's too fantastic to believe. That two rocks exploded in the sky and I have an ATM card and an automobile. Whatever you call it, there's something pretty far beyond me that created all of this. And I tend to call it God, and that's it, I'm comfortable with that.
- ControversialWell, yeah, but I don't get up in the morning and try to be. They think I am because I say things they don't like. You know, "controversial" means people who will actually say things you don't like. That's what makes you controversial. It's ascribed to you by somebody who obviously thinks he knows better than you do, that immediately makes you controversial.
You take delight in showing they don't know better?
No, I take no delight in that. I just find it funny that they're perfectly prepared to make judgments about me without having any knowledge of who I am. I find that amusing. Take the word, "controversial." That tells you as much about the person who accuses you of as you who are accused of it. That's an equal split. You walk in here, I don't know you, you say I'm controversial. I say, "He must not agree with me on a lot of things." So that tells me a lot about you, and it tells you something about me, "I don't agree with this guy, he's controversial."
- BrainyNah, I don't think that's true. I think common sense maybe, but not that. I got thrown in the hall for algebra class for most of ninth grade.
- SuccessfulSuccess is a journey, not a destination, I'm still on the journey, it's hard to tell. I've had wins and losses. I really like this company, I love my family, I live in America, my health is better than I look. So put that all together and say that's some form of success, sure, but it's a journey and you never know what's going to hit you tomorrow. I don't tend to sit around and dwell on that.
- Untortured by guiltThat's partially true. I'm not driven by guilt. [If] I have done something wrong or ever hurt anybody I'd feel guilty and would feel bad about it, as we all do in our personal relationships. But I don't feel personally responsible for society's ills. I feel personally responsible for trying to do the right thing if I have a chance to affect it in a positive way.
- Jokey, a lot of fun, and a helluva good guyI can't comment, that's for somebody else to ascribe, just like controversial. Some people will see me as a good guy, some won't. I have fun and I try to be a good guy in the sense that if anybody ever asks me for anything, I try to help. That I will say I do. I don't care whether I even like them. I don't think people ask for help unless they need it, and if they need it you have a human responsibility to do whatever you can.
Does that extend to a panhandler in the street?
Sure. I mean, if I think the guy has a job on Long Island and he's in here bullshitting me, then no. But it's pretty clear to tell if the guy is sitting there with one leg and has no way to help himself, then your job is to do whatever you can. -Thomas Hayden