Howard Hughes was one of the wealthiest people in America during his lifetime, so I thought I could learn something from him. I picked “Citizen Hughes” up from a used bookstore when browsing with Marcy years ago, and thought it would be good bedtime material to wind down.
The book was written by a reporter who got Hughes’ secret memos from a thief after Hughes’ death. The story of how the thief obtained the documents is a good one in itself, but we don’t have time today.
As I read this book, a few lessons presented themselves. Hughes got great results in some parts of his life, and terrible results in others, and important lessons can be gleaned from both.
1. Learn to delegate
If there was one thing Howard was good at, it was delegation. There was no way he could grow his companies to over $1B in the 1930s by doing everything himself. Even during his decline and mental illness at the end of his life, his notes to his aides on how to open a can of food were explicitly clear:
“The man in charge turns the valve in the bathtub on, using his bare hands to do so. He also adjusts the water temperature so that it is not too hot nor too cold. He then takes one of the brushes, and, using one of two special bars of soap, creates a good lather and then scrubs the can from a point two inches below the top of the can. He should first soak and remove the label, and then brush the cylindrical part of the can over and over until all particles of dust, pieces of paper label, and, in general, all sources of contamination have been removed. Holding the can at all times, he then processes the bottom of the can in the same manner, being very sure that the bristles of the brush have thoroughly cleaned all the small indentations on the perimeter of the bottom of the can. He then rinses the soap from the cylindrical sides and bottom of the can.”
And on and on it goes….
The lesson here is not to leave anything to interpretation, which is very important when engaging contractors, instructing staff, and speaking with clients. This is of course an extreme (and sad/humorous) example of the principle of delegation, but you can see how Hughes delegated throughout his life. These instructions are much more clear than “bring me a sanitized bowl of fruit.”
2. Take a polarized position
Hughes noted in his secret memos that he observed one small newspaper selling very well because it always took at strong position on whatever it reported. This newspaper was very biased in every article.
At the time, bias to that scale was exceedingly rare. Large newspapers prided themselves on journalistic integrity and presenting a factual version of events, from which readers could form their own opinions.
This realization led Hughes to acquire a TV station, and later attempt to buy a controlling share of ABC, one of America’s largest TV networks. Hughes thought (correctly?) that if he controlled ABC, he could influence elections enough for his hand picked candidates to win, capitalizing on years of investment in them (gifts/bribes). He could then call in favors when government interfered in his business dealings. Hughes’ bribery of politicians was so far reaching that it contributed to the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon. (Of interest to real estate investors, is was Nixon who abolished the Gold Standard and sent the world on the path of fiat currencies, which is part of the reason real estate is such a great investment.)
If you look at FOX or CNN you can see that taking a polarized position truly works. I’m not saying it’s right, but it works. A balanced perspective is boring, and attention is today’s currency. The great thing is, now anyone can publish to the world (including yours truly), and you don’t need to be a billionaire to have your voice heard.
3. Have a will
Hughes didn’t have a will when he died, and his billions were subject to decades of fighting by many people, most of whom he didn’t like. There was the “mormon will” that was thrown out in court, and like all things involving Hughes it has a crazy story attached to it too.
Perhaps Hughes thought he was going to live forever, or perhaps it was his one last desires to know everyone would fight over his estate. Hughes enjoyed creating competition among his subordinates, and it would be tough to say that he had any loved ones at all.
At the end of his life Hughes had no family, no friends, and he spent most of his time naked, unwashed with long hair and uncut nails. He died of kidney failure. He was 6’3″ but only 90lbs. His bed sores were so bad it’s said one of his shoulder blades had worn right through his skin so the bare bone was visible. To confirm the body was his, his fingerprints had to be taken because no one recognized him.
It’s remarkable he was able to control his empire in this feeble state, using only hand written memos, and seeing not a single person except his aides.
Hughes net worth and business dealings are a great example of a focused will, but the way he met his end is a cautionary tale. Ultimately Hughes lost his mariages, his health, and one could argue even his soul.
The final lesson to be gleaned is to recognize the cost of the goals you set, and decide if you’re willing to pay that price.