Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.

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