#128 What's an Executive Worth? (2005)

During a recent NPR business-babble program, Weekend Edition, Bill Catlin asked numbskull "expert, Jim Sillery, an executive compensation consultant, if executives were "worth" the idiotic salaries they receive for mismanaging over-stuffed American Misfortune 500 disaster zones.  This brilliant question was inspired by the recent Fannie Mae accounting mismanagement fiasco, which was preceded by ENRON and a few hundred similar incidents of gross and corrupt mismanagement in the last few years.  Of course, Sillery assured Catlin that boards of directors only pay what they "need" to pay to get the "talent" their companies require.  Talent?  Need?  What would a couple of stuffed suits who never worked an honest day in their lives know about talent or need? 

NPR's "business" program morphed into an equally silly discussion between Scott Simon and Fortune magazine editor Joe Nocera.  They continued the fanzine babble over the wonders of executive inspiration.  Spoken like the true outsider he is, Nocera pronounced Steve Jobs to be the 2004 Business Man of the Year.  Somehow, Nocera fantasized that Jobs was the Apple "founder" who's technical wizardry turned Apple into the poster-biz for rags-to-riches.  Catlin listened to this BS as uncritically as GeeWizz Bush receiving a lecture on world affairs from his puppet master, da Veepmeister. 

I would wager a good piece of spare change that neither Catlin, Sillery, Simon, or Nocera have worked on a production line, been a part of a product design team, or spent time in customer service.  At best, these four spoiled children might have had a summer job flipping burgers or pretending to be country club lifeguards.  There is no way that people with such limited useful business experience could know what a CEO "contributes" to a company, its products, the company's morale, inspiration, or daily function. 

Jobs is about as far from a tech-wiz as GeeWizz Bush.  Steve Wozniak provided the technical skills that created and still inspire Apple.  Jobs chased Wozniak out of his own company with power plays, back-stabbing, and by turning a cool, creative company into a tech sweatshop.  Jobs' claim to fame, in every Apple product, is the quickly dated "look" of Apple products.  With the same trendy vision that new cars look like old cars in two years, Jobs cranks out plastic boxes that look 50 years old by the time the next generation of products appears.  Jobs might be a marketing wiz, but he's no Woz.  He is not a technical innovator, an inspiring manager, or a creative force.  He's a political animal and there is no shortage of those in these United States.  The best analogy I've seen of Wozniak and Jobs compared them to the Beatles: Jobs was McCartney, a self-promoting pop icon with limited skills but lots of unfounded sex appeal, Wozniak is Lennon, multi-talented, ahead of his time, and completely dedicated to music and making the world a better place to live. 

Leadership is a grossly misunderstood quality.  For some reason, humans want to imagine that leaders are something you can breed and grow like pedigreed sheep.  For centuries, human cultures have gravitated toward promoting the most useless, least visionary, least talented men to the highest positions in the country.  We all know this isn't reality.  Hollywood and historians have made a living out of retelling the story that we all know to be true; that our leaders are distracted and incompetent and, without the constant assistance and supervision of critical middle management, they will drive us to ruin.  Crooked and doped up politicians, dimwitted kings and CEOs, loudmouthed but foolish bosses, sexist and clueless managers, and the long list of people in power who don't have the capacity or motivation to do the leading their job implies they should provide.  That's the universal stereotype for "leadership."  Writers and comedians have been working with that material for centuries. 

Cultural and corporate heroes are always the rare born leader who spends his time leading and doing the work that needs doing, instead of politicking, stuffing knives into backs, and avoiding useful work.  The fools who rise to the top of the corporate and political ladder are excess baggage with ambition.  They don't care who they hurt, how much damage they do to their culture and associates (they rarely have friends), or what happens to the business or country they mismanage after they receive their golden parachutes or are assassinated (politically or actually). Claiming that these men are critical to a company's success is as clueless as imagining that Reagan destroyed the Soviet Union or that Bill Clinton created the Information Society.  Just because they were sitting at the top of the pile when those things happened is no evidence that they were any part of the cause or the effect.

The myth survives because, rarely, a real leader actually ends up on top of the heap.  When that happens, the lucky heap is massively stronger than other heaps.  Microsoft is that kind of company and we all know how popular that company's leader is.  Human herds do not like people who actually are smarter than the average dull upper-crust wit.  But when a company or a culture does well, that isn't an indication of that kind of luck.  It's most often a different sort of happenstance.  The kind that is driven from somewhere less visible but more typical.  Most companies can get along fine without any of their deadbeat executives, but no company can survive without middle management, customer service, and the rest of the folks who actually do work.

January 2005

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