The cult of the faceless boss

Published on The Economist, November 12, 2009. – Too many chief executives are instantly forgettable. It’s the flamboyant, visionary bosses who change the world.

THE European Union is not the only institution that prefers faceless technocrats to people with star power. The corporate world is increasingly rejecting imperial chief executives in favour of anonymous managers—bland and boring men and women who can hardly get themselves noticed at cocktail parties, let alone stop the traffic in Moscow and Beijing.

Some of the world’s most powerful bosses are striking mainly for their blandness: Sam Palmisano at IBM, Tony Hayward at BP, Terry Leahy at Tesco, Vittorio Colao at Vodafone. These men are at the head of a vast army of even more forgettable bosses. Watch the parade of chief executives who appear on CNBC every day, or drop in to a high-powered conference, and you begin to wonder whether cloning is more advanced than scientists are letting on … 

…Be bold, not bland:

Henry Ford was as close as you can get to being deranged without losing your liberty. John Patterson, the founder of National Cash Register and one of the greatest businessmen of the gilded age, once notified an employee that he was being sacked by setting fire to his desk. Thomas Watson, one of Patterson’s protégés and the founder of IBM, turned his company into a cult and himself into the object of collective worship. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are both tightly wound empire-builders. Jack Welch and Lou Gerstner are anything but self-effacing. These are people who have created the future, rather than merely managing change, through the force of their personalities and the strength of their visions. George Bernard Shaw’s adage about progress depending on “the unreasonable man” applies just as much to business as to every other area of life, if not more.

The previous outbreak of the cult of facelessness was in the 1950s, when books such as “The Organisation Man” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” topped the bestseller list, and when two of America’s biggest firms, General Motors and General Electric, were both run by men named Charles Wilson. Today’s world is as different as possible from the one that produced organisation man: an unusual degree of turbulence requires unusual bosses, rather than steady-as-she-goes functionaries.

The best defence of these faceless bosses lies in the realm of public relations, rather than management—they are helping to defuse public anger at corporate excesses. But even here the case is weak. Few people pay any attention to the identikit bosses who keep popping up to hum their corporate muzak about doing well by doing right. The best ambassadors for business are the outsized figures who have 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. (full text).

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