News organisations should steal a page from Giuliani’s playbook


You can’t do any worse.”

Rudy Giuliani won what many thought was the poisoned chalice of the office of the mayor of New York City with a slogan that was nothing if not refreshing in its honesty.

In 1994, the “Big rotten Apple” was a city of 2,000 murders a year, 1.1 million people on welfare, an enormous budget deficit, and 10% unemployment. The obstacles were seemingly insurmountable.

But, according to Giuliani, who spoke in Sydney last week, the secret to good leadership is to have a big idea, a vision of what you want things to look like, and the commitment to removing the obstacles that will prevent you from executing your plan.

He says to create real change is simple: You just need a philosophy and a process.

His inspiration came from standing in the middle of Times Square and thinking not about the problems of crime, poverty, prostitution, and urban decay, but dreaming of what the future would look like if those issues no longer existed.

“When I became the mayor I decided that the most important thing to have was a group of ideas — a vision for how things could and should be,” he said. “I was determined to change the way the way the city thought about itself.”

His lessons outlined a roadmap that could rescue a news company just as easily as it turned around a broken, crime-riddled, bankrupt city. (Not to say it’s easy. But if seemingly impossible obstacles have been accomplished in our time, why not again?)

Giuliani also did all these things with only minority political support; he was one of only four Republicans on the New York City legislature, with an opposition of six Democrats. He did it without any real power base except for the enthusiasm he could instill in his people and his constituents.

His leadership was also credited with helping New York both cope with and survive the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.

It puts a totally fresh perspective on some of the dramas we all face back at the office.

So can newspapers change the way they think about themselves?

Here is my take on the leadership lessons for newspapers from Rudy Giuliani.

  1. Stop making the same mistakes. When Giuliani took over, the city was broke and business was moving out because taxes were so high. Government advisers recommended increasing taxes further.

    “I threw their report in the garbage,” he said. “I said, ‘This has been going on for 30 years and it’s a sickness. We have a budget deficit and we raise taxes and then businesses move out so there’s a deficit again. We are going to do something different.’”

  2. Leadership can be learned. We tend to think people are born leaders, but Giuliani (supported by a host of management academics) claims it can be learned, if you see it successfully demonstrated. Giuliani learned important lessons working with then-president Ronald Reagan. Newspapers talk a big leadership game, but too many of our top roles are still filled by administrative managers.

  3. Have a broken window policy. Giuliani fixed crime in NYC by repairing the small stuff, because he understood that letting it slide created a malaise. In newspapers, you often hear people lamenting that “things will never change” and blaming an invisible higher power, while failing to act in any way themselves on things that are within their power to fix.

    My favourite example of this is when people comment on the irony of being a media company that can’t communicate, and yet they themselves withhold information from their staff or colleagues. If we all took responsibility to fix the broken windows near us in our media companies, our companies would actually start behaving as we want them to.

  4. Create milestones. Giuliani’s plan to fix New York was big and needed many years to be fully effective.

    “But people’s attention span is small and you have to show people success,” he said. Squeegee men would wash the windows of drivers at intersections and then damage cars — or drivers — if they did not receive any change. Giuliani used them as symbols of what he wanted to achieve on a grander scale. By arresting them for jay-walking, he got them off the streets and made driving safe in New York — and also demonstrated how the rest of the transition would work.

When Giuliani left office, tourism in New York was up by more than 4 million people, as visitors flocked to a city they suddenly felt safe in. His policies cut the crime rate by 55%, and even the pope declared New York City as the capital of the world. It was a hell of a turnaround.

Can newspapers pull off a similar miracle? Could we do any worse but to try?

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