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James Bailey Ph.D.
James Bailey Ph.D.

Celebrity CEOs: Are They Flirting with Disaster?

Here are five reasons why today's CEOs are prone to change lanes.

Since when are corporate leaders celebrities? These days they regularly become global cultural portraits, capturing the zeitgeist with edifying TED Talks, best-selling autobiographies, and social media presences rivaling rock stars. They seem intent on asserting their “personal brands” with bravado antithetical to their publicly bashful forebearers.

For many iconic executives, cultural celebrity is good business, free publicity, and an inoculant to merciless P&Ls and grumpy boards of directors. A shrewd CEO can use Twitter to reverse potentially incapacitating rumors on Wall Street or dodge a public relations nightmare.

Justin Aiken/Unsplash
Source: Justin Aiken/Unsplash

But recent disruptions—most notably in the tech industry—suggest that corporate celebrity has potentially devastating consequences. Elon Musk of Tesla and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook—who have both carefully cultivated public personas—have found that fame is not foolproof when government investigators come knocking, asset managers are malcontent, or users are disillusioned. Travis Kalanick imploded within Uber despite his start-up credentials and calculated camera-readiness. Mark Zuckerberg is unraveling one thread at a time, even with one of the most wide-ranging public relations campaign ever.

The reason corporate celebs may find their renown particularly precarious is a simple matter of scale. Leading a billion-dollar, international conglomerate, entrusted with privacy and pledged to policy, comes with scrutiny that is equal parts microscope and spotlight. Thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are at stake. What did these preening, self-aggrandizing CEOs expect to happen when things went sour, as they always do?

Never have the Police lyrics “every move you make” been more apropos. Never has Molly Hatchet’s admonition “flirting with disaster” been more applicable. And never has celebrity ambition been more misplaced.

Historically, mostly the ranks of global celebrities are populated with sports stars and entertainers. Micheal Jordan handled his beautifully. So too did Lionel Messi and LeBron James. Whether the young talent Bryce Harper does so is yet to be seen. Lucille Ball and Dolly Parton cultivated public personas that belied their abundant business acumen. George Clooney manages his fame so well that he appears above reproach.

Athletes, musicians, and actors have long formed the core of the cult of personality. But they know—or at least should—that their celebrity status is fragile. Despite his brilliant play, Manny Machado’s flip comment about not being a hustle guy will likely cost him tens of millions of dollars over his career. Roseanne Barr’s impulsively repugnant Tweet deep-sixed her comeback. For this brand of celebrity, though, that which lifted them is precisely that which casts them down. There might be a lot of tabloid buzz when they self-destruct. We might be disappointed in our favored ones. But that’s about it.

Here and there, a public servant captures public adoration. Who would have thought that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would become an epigrammatical and fashion meme? Alan Greenspan, Chair of the Federal Reserve, was widely referred to as a “Delphic oracle.” Sometimes scientists enjoy the mantle of stardom (Stephen Hawking and NASA’s Katherine Johnson), but they are few and far between. The same holds true for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, and authors like J.K. Rowling and Tom Wolfe. By and large, this group is immune to the perils of publicity. They come and go and their stumbles go unnoticed. They just don’t loom that large in our lives.

Dan Schiumarini/Unsplash
Source: Dan Schiumarini/Unsplash

Turning to the business world, there have always been corporate leaders—Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Carly Fiorina—that have focused public fascination. Oh, yes, and the supreme modern self-promoting CEO, Jack Welsh, joins that small cadre of household business names. They all captured our attention through larger-than-life or enigmatic personalities, life-changing technologies, and enormous impact. Good for them.

In recent years, however, the number of business leaders transmuting into public figures has swelled at a stunning rate. I believe this trend can be traced to just five factors, all of which are derived from what’s been said up to this point.

First, the sports world—where we have often turned to for heros—has been embroiled in scandal (i.e., doping and sexual misbehavior) and greed (i.e., prioritizing salaries and bonuses over winning). Champions used to enchant the public consciousness, with dreams of sacrifice and courage. Now, a personal wrong turn (Tiger Woods), seizing artificial advantage (Alex Rodriguez, Tom Brady), or being perceived as disloyal (Colin Kaepernick) can ambush a career and leave the public disappointed and unforgiving. Rightly so. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, indeed?

Second, CEOs are more trusted than political leaders. A straight line of political wariness can be drawn from President Nixon’s unscrupulousness to President Clinton’s shenanigans through to President Trump’s obstinacy. We’ve reached a fevered pitch in this highly partisan era. Note the funeral of the late George H.W. Bush that seemed as much to mourn the loss of civic leadership as the passing of the former president. The Churchillian temperament is voided, ironically to be filled by the business tycoons he tumbled with daily.

Third, CEOs have been empowered to change lanes in small and large ways. The lines between sectors have grown blurry. Careers are malleable, so a clever, ambitious former executive can branch out into everything from television commentator to political gadfly to motivational speaker. Meanwhile, the cult of the savvy, supposedly no-nonsense business leader thrives in popular reality television programs such as Shark Tank or, in the past, The Apprentice. There are ways to be famous and to get rich or richer, that the blue-suited executive of the past never imagined, and if they did, would be too modest to undertake.

Fourth, an underlying issue that affects every flavor of celebrity is the omnipresence of social media. Not long ago, exposure to CEOs was severely limited to a handful of traditional business news outlets, the most recognized being the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, in their old school print heyday. Coverage of executives, even charismatic ones, was almost entirely related to their companies, not their persons.

My how that has changed! Today, there are hundreds of media outlets backed up by thousands of social media platforms covering every facet of the economy and business. Gossip, personal peccadillos, internal tensions, defections, employee grievances, non-disclosure agreements, and the like have turned the business news into a corporate version of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. It’s surely a good thing that malpractice finds light. But the result is that the once staid business press is now a full-on entertainment industry.

Fifth, and this has to be addressed, is the generation factor. As noted above, the upheaval described here resides mostly in the technology industry. By and large, that industry’s leadership is populated by young(ish) folks (largely men) whose life experience has been characterized by vanity. Whether consciously conceited or unconsciously clueless, no one knows. But as soon as it becomes common practice to post a picture of a ham sandwich you just made or the certificate of completion granted when in elementary school, there is room for boastful immodesty. Not a new condition, to be sure, but one that is clinically magnified in the modern times in which we live.

CEO celebrity is a natural evolution. It fills a void that Stan Musial and Jimmy Stewart, or Athena Gibson and Katherine Hepburn, once occupied. It builds on encompassing economic and technological advances as compared to bitter political bickering. It does not go unnoticed that Microsoft and Apple changed our way into the world, that Facebook and Instagram changed the way we interact with that world, and that Tesla and Uber changed the way we navigate it. And then there’s Google, whose impact cannot even now be forecasted.

Source: Rawpixel/Unsplash

But the celebrity that any of these and other leaders lay claim to comes with power and peril. As much as airport books celebrate the virtues of humility, leaders are ego-driven with hard-edged or soft-honed hubris. Why else would one take the job if not, in part, to bask in the praise? Humble and unassuming or whatever, everyone wants to be thanked. Therein lies the temptation to refract the light of success to oneself is natural.

Reputations built on social media can just as easily fall to a well-aimed Tweet or toxic post. The fame that affords public attention through mass media also turns one into a colossal target for disgruntled journalists and jealous bystanders. And the law of unintended consequences weighs heavily on the superstar CEO facing investors, employees, and us. By which one wrought one may fall.

Joining the ranks of celebrity CEOs may be easier today than it has ever been, but staying in the good graces of a fickle public can be hard, even for the most charismatic chief executive. Perhaps the best rule of thumb for ambitious leaders is discovering the fine line between celebrity and notoriety—and working like the devil to stay on the right side of the line.

Otherwise, you're flirting with disaster.

About the Author
James Bailey Ph.D.

James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

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