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The fall of the CEO? (Editor's Note).

Is the era of the CEO over?

That would seem to be the question as magazine after magazine devotes coverage to the latest crisis in confidence of character and leadership. As the list of flameouts grows -- from WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers to Dynegy's Chuck Watson to Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski--the same journalists who placed these CEOs on the pedestal of shareholder value now take pleasure in chronicling their falls. Even former CEOs such as Jack Welch are finding that the media's fascination extends well beyond the retirement party. Is the CEO position--at [east in its current incarnation--dead?

As Mark Twain once responded to a journalist regarding rumors of Twain's own demise: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

We shouldn't be surprised to find that a number of CEOs have feet of clay--just as politicians, sports stars or dockworkers do. Neither should we be shocked that the media have seized on the failures of CEOs for good copy. But before we write the epitaph of the CEO or business leadership in general, we need to remember three facts:

FACT 1: CEOs were never as powerful in society--or even in their own companies--as they were portrayed. Any honest CEO will tell you that he has little to do with his companys' day-to-day success (or failure). So even as CEOs became icons of their firms and brands throughout the 1980s and 1990s, especially to reporters, investors and activists, the CEOs themselves realized that...

FACT 2: CEOs are more constrained than ever. In the wake of Enron, Global Crossing and a hundred other examples of corporate governance gone wrong, no public company CEO will ever again have the kind of free reign that reporters and investors alternately admire and despise. Heightened demands for transparency in reporting both financial and operational metrics mean that CEOs live in a fishbowl where every decision is reviewed not just by boards, but by investors, employees, communities and pundits. The days of the maverick public company CEO are likely gone. That may be good (think Ken Lay) or bad (think Herb Kelleher), but it's the new reality--except that...

FACT 3: CEOs are--despite facts one and two--more important than ever. The increased focus on CEOs and their failures is a reflection of the increased importance of the decisions they must make on issues ranging from information technology to finance to employee retention to corporate sustainability. Fairly or unfairly, a CEO is now the symbol not only of his or her company's brand or power, but also its credibility. In short, the CEO is still the indispensable leader. What we're seeing now is less the fall of the CEO than the return of humility and realistic expectations to a position that sorely needed it. The best leaders have always reminded themselves that beneath the suit and wingtips beats the heart of a human being, not Superman. The worst CEOs always manage to get reminded, too--but they often need investors or reporters to do it.

How about you?

John Brandt

President & Editorial Director
COPYRIGHT 2002 Chief Executive Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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