Meet the Hyped-Up Business Leaders You Idolize Most
It is my pleasure to announce the latest winners of the National Association for Serious Studies’ Annual Admiration Award for the Supreme Leaders of the Business Cosmos, recognizing icons of management that we all seem to idolize at the time. The jury that accords this prestigious prize—which, despite its name, is given out roughly once a decade—is made up of journalists from the mainstream business media, a panel of high-middle managers at a variety of Fortune 100 companies, and a significant number of confused employees, including me.
Before we reveal the 2016 recipients of this coveted accolade, however, let’s review our past winners.
1956: The first gold medal was awarded to the Organization Man, that faceless operator in the gray flannel suit who was in at 8 a.m., out at 6 p.m., had a couple of martinis at lunch and one on the train home from work, and labored like a Trojan for the right to wear his Sansabelt slacks on the weekends, buy a grotesque new gas-guzzler every year, and retire to the Sunbelt at 65 on the dot. His name is lost to history now, but he made the ’50s one of the great growth decades in history. And then he—there was virtually no she—disappeared.
1965: Ah, the Conglomerators. In the mid-’60s we honored prominent agglutinators, such as Harold Geneen of ITT, who put together a lot of disparate businesses to the greater glory of almost none of them. These masters of consolidation were lauded and feted—and then for the next 20 years the towering edifices they constructed were disassembled piece by piece. My company (before I got there) had a large rotating-objects division, a media company, a refrigerated transport enterprise, a risk-taking credit unit, and a furniture group. By 1995 it was nearly bankrupt and was forced to divest almost everything.
1980: Quality Gurus ruled! These folks were all about maximizing productivity, and their weekly “quality circle” meetings had an oppressiveness not achieved since Stalinist Russia circa 1935, with its continuous rounds of socialist self-criticism. Everything had to be Excellent. Everybody had to take part. We sang songs. We wore buttons. We built sand castles at team-building getaways. And then it all … went away. No more Excellence! The search for it was over! What a relief.
1995: Bow down to the Financial Manipulators! Big, fat, greedy, rapacious brigands won the decade. Most of them came from Wharton, and a brilliant lot they were. They figured out how to infiltrate a management structure, undermine it, rip it to shreds, slam it back together while firing a whole bunch of workers, manipulate inside information, and walk away from the steaming wreck with a lot of money. They blessed the covers of every august business publication—until they went to jail. Oops! Take back those awards!
2005: Quants and Bankers. So smart. So savvy. Their understanding of the instruments of debt and credit were equal to Schrödinger’s grasp of quantum theory. And didn’t we all festoon them with admiration, until … well, we all know what happened. Accolades rescinded again, darn it!
2016: That brings us to today. A drumroll, please. This year’s prize goes to … Competitor-Crushing Visionaries! Each is cornering a majority of market share in search, in online retail, in digital advertising, and so forth. But wait! There’s more! Each of these youthful tech titans is moving forward—to conquer outer space, to eradicate death, to make sure the whole world is available for marketing via the web, and to force all of us to abandon the freedom of driving our own vehicles. Congratulations to the winners!
Oh, and first runner-up goes to Activist Investors. They figured out how to infiltrate a management structure, undermine it, rip it to shreds, manipulate the market, and walk away with a whole lot of money. Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t those guys used to be called something else?
A version of this article appears in the February 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Idols of Our Time.”