It’s time for a new breed of chief executive. I have a proposal.
There are really terrible jobs in the world. President of the United States comes to mind. Maybe once it was okay, but now? Where’s the fun in it? It doesn’t pay half enough. Everybody’s out to move your cheese. Even higher on the list of things you probably never want to do when you grow up, however, is a surprising entry. The job of chief executive officer as currently configured just might be the most impossible, demanding, annoying one on the planet.
Yes, as spring has moved into this long, hot summer, the news has brought us several representatives of the breed who have gone spectacularly down in flames or should soon, all things being equal. The trend is clear. It’s now virtually impossible for a demented, high-profile narcissist to hold the position of CEO. That’s bad news for business. Who else is going to want it?
Let’s look at a few recent cases of note. Tony Hayward was the CEO of BP, as the world knows, having witnessed his sheepish, ruddy countenance during the tortuous history of the gulf oil spill. During the crisis Hayward did what CEOs always do: made excuses, tried to justify his company’s miscreancies, displayed contempt for idiots who didn’t buy his act, and was insufficiently adept at simulating empathy for other people. This usually works for ultra-senior officers. This time around the media made lunchmeat out of him. The game has changed! Now he has his life back, as he wished.
And then there’s Mark Hurd. A very capable CEO was Mark. He did good things for Hewlett-Packard after the company had suffered for years under another spectacular washout, who has now wisely decided to enter the political sphere. At first, it looked as if Hurd had suddenly morphed into a familiar entity, abandoning use of his capacious brainpan in order to follow the instructions of his naughty inner man. With fiduciary improprieties too! Amazing! Astounding! But wait. Along with his slide down the exit ramp of the airship of state came a big platinum chute, reportedly in the neighborhood of $40 million. You don’t usually give that to a guy guilty of crimes against the state. So we can stay tuned on that story, with a keen eye trained on the sometimes bizarre and always fascinating HP board of directors.
Which brings us to Lloyd Blankfein. No, Lloyd isn’t out of the catbird seat yet. But Lloyd exists at this point simply to demonstrate how deeply, dramatically, stunningly unlikable the corporate CEO can be. Every time We the People begin to feel a little bit of confidence that Wall Street just might have learned something, become slightly less greedy or arrogant? There’s Lloyd. Whoever is running Lloyd’s image work should tell him one thing immediately: Lloyd. Don’t smile.
What, then, is to be done? What are the alternatives? Are there any? Democracy? No. I worked in a theater company once that purported to be one. It devolved into a dictatorship of the proletariat run by the most neurotic individual in our group. Government by committee? I think not. Anybody who has tried to get a decision out of a Japanese corporation knows what that process looks like, with vast, evaluative silences stretching between apparent agreements that actually mean no. How about a fully empowered board? Have you looked at your board lately? I mean, they’re very nice guys, but how much time do they really devote to your situation, given their other duties and hobbies?
No. We’re stuck. We need the position. The only answer is to look for a new kind of animal to fill it. One who doesn’t cut a profile. One who operates quietly from his secret aerie. One who is capable of having fun without making a spectacle of himself. One too timorous to monkey with his expense account. One who has no need of sexy consultants. One who is willing to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent to his craven board, and then, when it’s over, take his $100 million package and fade away in polite silence.
Stand back, world. I’m ready.