U.S. CEOs could learn a thing or two about taking responsibility and expressing humility from Toshifumi Suzuki, the 83-year-old Japanese convenience store mogul. Suzuki, whose Seven & i Holdings is the parent company of the 7-Eleven chain, announced he was resigning as CEO on Thursday after losing a boardroom battle with hedge fund manager Dan Loeb.
But Suzuki was far from a sore loser. He didn’t blame the growing tide of activist investors, short-termism, or a long career for his decision to step down. Instead, Suzuki blamed himself. He simply explained his reason for resigning at a press conference as, “It is my lack of virtue and I am unbearably ashamed.”
Suzuki said he wasn’t going to even try to name a successor. He said he wasn’t worthy of the job.
Compare that to the way some high profile U.S. CEOs exited their jobs amid turmoil.
When Jeff Skilling abruptly exited Enron, he said he was doing so for personal reasons and that it had nothing to do with the fact that he had built a company that was corrupt at its core and on the verge of collapse. “I want to thank Ken Lay for his understanding of this purely personal decision,” Skilling said in a statement. Within four months, Enron was bankrupt. Five years later, Skilling was in jail.
Gerald Levin tried to paint the AOL-Time Warner merger that led to a 90% drop in the company’s stock price and has since been dubbed one of the worst deals in history as a success when he announced his departure from the company. He also said he believed in the strength of his management team—another classic of CEO getaway speeches. “I have the greatest confidence in Dick Parsons’ ability to lead the company forward, coalesce its diverse interests, and work with our strategic partners to achieve our ambitious goals,” he said at the time.
When Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan was pushed out, she said she was leaving her employer because an exciting new position had opened up elsewhere. “I’m excited to be joining Credit Suisse and look forward to working with their talented people,” Callan said. “This gives me the opportunity to return to my roots.” She stayed in that “exciting” new job for less than seven months.
And the classic: In 2003, Raytheon CEO Dan Burnham said he was leaving his job to “spend time with his family, teach and possibly become a director on other company boards,” according to the Wall Street Journal at the time. Three years later, Burnham agreed to pay a fine and return part of a $1.75 million bonus in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations of accounting irregularities.
That’s not to say Suzuki didn’t do anything wrong. Apparently, the CEO tried to remove a fellow executive who was a likely successor. Suzuki reportedly wanted to hand the job to one of his sons instead. That’s not great. But it’s nothing compared to what Skilling did at Enron. Countless other U.S. CEOs have done far worse and left without saying sorry.
Perhaps if it was the norm for U.S. CEOs to fess up to their mistakes when they resign, maybe they would be less willing to try to get away with the kind of behavior they should be ashamed of in the first place. At the very least, they wouldn’t sound as silly when they are finally are forced to say, “Goodbye.”