Noted: “Do CEOs Matter”?

The Atlantic delivers a fascinating item in its June 2009 issue on the Great Man Theory of History and how it plays out in the halls of corporate power.

“Do CEOs Matter?” takes a look at the roller-coaster ride Apple’s stock takes every time a rumor surfaces about the health of Steve Jobs. It explores the difference between a “Titular Figurehead” and an “Unconstrained Manager,” and the relative impact of an executive who stays in the background and holds everything together, vs. the radical aggressor who embraces a corporate culture of high-stakes/high-finance power plays.

It’s an important article for its unsentimental look at the idea of the CEO as a near-mythic, miracle-working personage who, when the rubber hits the road, can turn out to be singularly destructive forces — for example, Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, or Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International … or the succession of high rollers who transformed Beatrice Foods from a carefully constructed conglomerate of “mom ‘n’ pop” businessess into a hyper-leveraged Wall Street property that eventually collapsed, and was carved up and sold off in parts, with the carcass absorbed by ConAgra.

I think about this. And I think of the plight of the media corporations today, and the Atlantic article’s closing statement is all to apropos:

Maybe that’s the ultimate lesson here: CEOs can matter, but we all might be better off if they didn’t. “Good leaders can make a small positive difference; bad leaders can make a huge negative difference,” Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer told Fortune in 2006. Many Americans, surveying the aftermath of eight years with an Unconstrained Manager as their chief executive, might be tempted to agree.

It is altogether true that a good leader at the right moment can be transformative for an endeavor. My experience with this is almost entirely in the nonprofit and social-venture sector, where paychecks are absent but heart, soul and passion are abundant — as are the train wrecks.

The best leaders in such situations almost always submerge their own ego, swallow their pride, and try to bring out the best in the community of people who make a given venture happen. Yes, one must be a “decider,” and not only is consensus building sometimes hellishly difficult, it also can be, in the case of negative-groupthink situations (i.e.: lemmings), a bad idea.

People need heroes, leadership can make a difference, and yet also, people need to know how to be their OWN heroes, their OWN leaders.

What lesson is here for the hierarchical newsroom, the executive-driven news corporation, where social capital lies fallow as the drive for sky-high profit margins amid shifting commercial economies brings newspapers to collapse and ruin?

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