The end of the ego-CEO?

The autocratic, egotistical chief executive has had his day, but was he simply a result of the unique US business culture?

by Rhymer Rigby, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

It's fashionable to say that the late 1990s and early 2000s were an era of irrational exuberance populated by larger-than-life chief executives. Citigroup was headed up by the legendary dealmaker Sandy Weill, 'Neutron' Jack Welch commanded GE and Michael Eisner held the helm at Disney. And these were the relatively good guys. The dark side of this phenomenon was Kenneth Lay at Enron, Worldcom's Bernard Ebbers and in all likelihood Hollinger's Conrad Black. Finally, presiding over this from 2001, we had George Bush, the self-styled 'CEO President'.

What a difference a few years make. Weill, Welch and Eisner have all been replaced by far more low-key figures. Lay is dead, Ebbers is looking at the wrong end of a 25-year stretch and Black faces trial in March with the prospect of an even longer jail sentence. Only Bush remains and he is looking pretty emasculated, following the results of the mid-term elections in November of last year.

So, where once flamboyance and arrogance ruled, do we have more consensual, collegiate company men labouring under the sharp eye of Sarbanes-Oxley? Certainly, there seems to be something to this argument. Robert Iger, who succeeded Michael Eisner at Disney, appears to have been reasonably successful. One of his first moves was to decentralise power.

He has also done a deal with Apple and garnered the praise of Steve Jobs, who was known not to be a fan of Eisner's. But it hasn't all been softly, softly. Iger has done a good job of putting distance between himself and his predecessor, notably by firing senior staff at the Muppet Holding Company, many of whom were Eisner appointees. Meanwhile, his predecessor continues to tell the world he was right, proving you can't keep a good egomaniac down.

Over at Citigroup is a similar situation, although as Weill built up the business himself his autocratic ways may be a little more forgivable than those of Eisner. Thus far, his successor, Chuck Prince, who has been at the top for less than a year, seems much less aggressive. But there is concern that he's in a difficult position. Some shareholders expected to see better returns from the company and have questioned whether he is a strong enough leader. Also, Prince might well be worried by the fact that his predecessor owns nearly $1 billion-worth of Citigroup shares.

In both these cases, as Zhou Enlai - the first premier of the People's Republic of China and another autocratic leader - remarked about the French Revolution, perhaps it is "too early to tell". But an example of someone who has gone further is GE's Jeffrey Immelt, who stepped up to the plate in 2001. Compared with Welch, he is described as "easy-going", probably something that isn't particularly difficult. He is currently trying to replace Welch's culture of savage, almost buccaneering, cost-cutting with one of innovation and radical thinking more apposite for the late 2000s. And people are now talking about an Immelt revolution.

So there is certainly some general feeling that the CEO style has changed in the wake of Enron et al and with the introduction of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002. "There definitely has been a change in the type of leader," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at global PR firm Weber Shandwick. "They are quieter and more measured, and very focused on holding on to their credibility."

Yet, she adds, at the same time, CEOs need to communicate more. "The drama of all the scandals has finally made it into the public consciousness in a big way. They have to prove themselves on a daily basis and this means being very open."

Sarah Sweetman, a senior partner at UK business psychologist Blue Edge, takes a similar view, arguing that a flashy style is no longer enough. "Research suggests that there are links between what people require of their leaders and what is going on socially. There is growing evidence to suggest that people are looking for greater authenticity and simplicity in how things are done."

This idea of 'authentic' leadership looks less to showmen and more to leaders who will engender the positive trust and emotion necessary for greater employee engagement. But Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University Desautels School of Management, isn't convinced. "I'm not sure it's a question of leadership style. I think a lot of CEO-type people are destructive anywhere and that we've created a cult of narcissistic egotists."

However, he adds, to a certain extent, these egotistical people were a result of the times we lived in. "I see this as a period where we went crazy and now we're beginning to see how dumb we were."

So, are we starting to see the light? "Not at all. Not until we bury the notion of shareholder value and get over the idea that companies exist only for shareholders. Until then, we'll have people putting everything around CEOs and that will always attract narcissists." Shareholder value in the US, he says, is driven by the relentless treadmill of quarterly results.

Jonathan Dancy, head of board practice at executive search firm Boyden, is broadly in agreement that there is something about the US system that produces these people: "It's so much more difficult to succeed in the US unless you can make an impact at the AGM. If you're at a Wall Street firm, they can be so hard on people. You can have 12 quarters of good results and then be stigmatised for two quarters of less impressive performance." The US system, he continues, "builds people who are phenomenally good at taking short-term profits. And I'm not sure that's good for any company in the long term."

What, then, about the rest of the world? Europe, with its employee representatives on boards and less aggressive capitalist culture, doesn't really produce swashbuckling types in any number. The super-rich of Europe tend not to court publicity - sometimes to the point where they're famous for being shy (see box). Nor, for that matter, do countries such as China, Korea or Japan, which tend to focus on the corporate rather than the individual.

The British too are pretty reserved when it comes to shouting about themselves. Tom Bower, author of the recently published Conrad & Lady Black: dancing on the edge (2006), points out that even if it might sometimes appear the opposite, being a celebrity CEO is not really the British way: "If you look at Robert Maxwell, Roland 'Tiny' Rowland, Mohamed Al-Fayed and Conrad Black - they are or were all foreigners. The English have never been great tycoons." And, he adds, the people who show tycoonish tendencies - such as Richard Branson - tend to steer clear of the stock markets.

Indeed, the only real competitor the US has for the big personality businessman is Russia with its oligarchs and 1980s-style conspicuous consumption. But Russia is a special case: its capitalism is very young and its oligarchs' wealth is often the result of timely plundering of former state assets.

Perhaps then what the US has is a unique mix - a big enough economy to create these giants, a culture that tends to tolerate them and markets that encourage them. Even so, flamboyance and arrogance seem less in favour than they were five years ago. It's also worth remembering that ego-CEOs were also very much a product of their time and that everyone was, to some extent, complicit in their creation. This era has only just ended and was probably a high-water mark in terms of business obsession.

The press enjoyed a fair bit of the old 'irrational exuberance' itself. CEOs were worshipped and appeared on every magazine cover; suddenly their images were as important as their actions. Their opinions were sought out and the media mobbed them whether they wanted it or not; equity ownership reached the parts other investments didn't touch. Given this cult of business personality, perhaps some of these ego-driven monsters were, more accurately, media monsters. "I don't actually think Jack Welch was a narcissistic leader," says Mintzberg. "The press built this image up around him."

On a slightly different tack, we also need to be careful about how we view the past. Sweetman points to a form of historical revisionism coming into play. He says we need to ask ourselves whether we thought these people were quite so remarkable at the time - or do we now see them like that in order to confirm our memories of an era? The early noughties, so the thinking goes, were a crazy, self-obsessed time; therefore, its movers and shakers must have been egomaniacs.

But this doesn't alter the fact that there has been a change. So it's worth asking whether we should be glad that these ego-driven CEOs are on the way out. Perhaps they were simply the right men for the right time. Or perhaps not. In one of the best (and bestselling) books ever written on the subject, Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins gives a number of preconditions that tend to result in a great company. One of them is a series of CEOs who have come up through the ranks and combine "personal humility and professional will". In fact, he counselled against charismatic CEOs.

Moreover, there are plenty of truly great CEOs who, although well known, are certainly not larger than life and spend their time getting on with running the business. Many of them were there before the ego-CEOs and are still here. Bill Gates is a great example. So is Warren Buffett, as are Google's Sergei Brin and Larry Page, and eBay's Pierre Omidyar.

Of course, many of these are household names, but that is only because the limelight seeks them out, not the other way round. And it is perhaps noteworthy that all of them held (or hold) huge stakes in their businesses, thus avoiding the need to genuflect to the demands of shareholders in the normal way and giving them the time to concentrate on longer term goals.

So is there such a thing as a good personality CEO? Perhaps. "I don't think it's a choice between swashbucklers and workmanlike CEOs," says Matt Kingdon, chairman of innovation consultancy ?What If!. "Our work with senior business leaders across the globe has highlighted a trend that seems to be gaining momentum, which is leadership through 'followership' - that you're a true leader only if others are following you."

That a leader needs followers may seem obvious, but when you compare Buffett with a run-of-the-mill CEO, who lives or dies on next quarter's results, you can appreciate what Kingdon means. Whether such followership after two quarters of bad results is possible for a CEO who doesn't hold a huge equity stake is another thing.

And does the current shift mark a permanent change? Of course not. Business styles come and go like any fashion, and to see the original swashbuckling CEOs at work one needs to look back to the robber barons of the late 19th century. They were more than a match for their current counterparts when it comes to CEO egotism and many of their names - John Davison Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt - are part of popular culture. It is unlikely that this will be true of many of today's big names, although Ken Lay might just do it.

It would seem then that big personality CEOs are out of fashion, but not down and out. Although most of the people who head businesses now may be lower key, many believe that the US system is fundamentally flawed and will always attract the egocentric CEO.

Would anything sort this out? Mintzberg believes that to attract the right kind of people with the right attitude to value creation, companies need to abandon quarterly reporting, that quite a few should de-list themselves and they should have representatives from other constituencies (such as employees) on their boards. Of course, the factor that would accomplish much of this in one fell swoop is a major recession.

Does he think this will happen? "Well, I'm not putting any of my money in the stock market."

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