Sunday, November 15, 2009

Faceless and Humble

In the November 23, 2009 edition of Fortune, Steve Jobs of Apple was crowned the CEO of the Decade. The article summarizes Jobs and his legend with the following paragraph:

He is the rare businessman with legitimate worldwide celebrity. (His quirks and predilections are such common knowledge that they were knowingly parodied on an episode of The Simpsons.) He pals around with U2's Bono. Consumers who have never picked up an annual report or even a business magazine gush about his design taste, his elegant retail stores, and his outside-the-box approach to advertising. ("Think different," indeed.) It's often noted that he's a showman, a born salesman, a magician who creates a famed reality-distortion field, a tyrannical perfectionist. It's totally accurate, of course, and the descriptions contribute to his legend.

During the same week, The Economist ran an article entitled "The Cult of the Faceless Boss." Bosses that keep their heads down - the faceless CEO versus the imperial boss. The current financial crisis has produced a wave of popular fury about over-paid executives and their unaccountable ways. In this sort of climate it is not just the paranoid, but the faceless, who survive.

But the article points out that "the best ambassadors for business are the outsized figures who changed the world and who feel no need to apologise for themselves or their calling. There is no long-term comparative advantage in being forgettable." As stated in the article:

Facelessness - or at least humility - is also the height of fashion among management consultants and business gurus. Corporate headhunters are helping firms find "humble" bosses. Jim Collins one of America's most popular gurus, argues that the best chief executives ae not flamboyant visionaries but "humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls." Business journalists have taken to producing glowing profiles of self-effacing and self-denying bosses such as Haruka Nishimatsu, the boss of Japan Airlines, who travels to work on the bus and pays himself less than his pilots, and Mike Eskew, the former boss of UPS, who flew coach and shares an administrative assistant with three other people. I can only be a matter of time before somebody writes "The Management Secrets of Uriah Heep": "be umble, be ever so umble."

Yet there is surely a danger of taking all this too far. A low profile is no guarantee against corporate failure, as the former bosses of two companies lauded by Mr. Collins, Fannie Mae and Circuit City, can tell you. In general, the corporate world needs its flamboyant visionaries and raging egomaniacs rather more than its humble leaders and corporate civil servants. Think of the people who have shaped the modern business landscape, and "faceless" and "humble" are not the first two words that come to mind.

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