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CEOs can live on as artists

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Kai Ryssdal: News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch is in the headlines all the time. There’s that Dow Jones takeover thing. And just yesterday, he announced the launch date for his long-awaited business channel. Not too bad for a 76-year-old man.

Murdoch could have retired years ago, but he isn’t the only guy wheeling and dealing in his golden years. Warren Buffet’s 76, too. Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone’s 84 and still going.

The average age of Fortune 500 CEOs is 61. And commentator Harriet Rubin points out few of them are fading away as CEOs did a generation ago.

Harriet Rubin: Business tends to be written on sand. It’s constantly shifting.

But these days, CEOs want to stick around to achieve something never before thought possible in business: Immortality. A legacy. It’s the wish to have something more than money to show for a life in business that separates mature leaders from young go-getters.

Phil Knight, founder of the perpetually youthful Nike, was once asked: “What’s your biggest fear about business?” Knight answered, “That one day I’ll dandle a grandkid on my knee and she’ll say, “‘Grandpa, what was Nike?'”

So, mature leaders are forgetting Machiavelli’s slim volume, “The Prince.” That primer on power was written for a feckless young Medici kid on how to beat the competition to a pulp. The new guides? Artists whose mature periods are called “the late style.”

Late style success goes against the market’s demands. One creates, finally, for oneself, and guarantees a legacy that way. Mature Bach bravely composed music for an instrument — the clavier — not yet invented. Mature Titian turned down commissions from wealthy kings wanting their portraits painted, and painted emotional canvases of gods gone wild — with his thumbs.

Some mature business leaders appear ready, like artists, to have midlife rebirths instead of midlife crises.

Take Phil Knight. He’s painting with his thumbs, too, going from Nike into producing hip-hop operas in computer animation. David Leach is leaving his lofty education post at the American Medical Association to pore over Aristotle’s ethics. There’s no buck to be made in ancient Greek, but Leach wants to hitch his mortal wagon to a philosopher who’s lived for thousands of generations and not an iPod nanosecond.

These people are replacing the dominance of the younger boys in the room with the soulful maturity of the old masters. Forget 50 as the new 30. Fifty is the new 150 going on a thousand — years, that is.

Ryssdal: Harriet Rubin is the author of the book, “The Mona Lisa Stratagem.”

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