The Difference Between a Right-Wing and Left-Wing Media Brain

I’ve been hesitating to write this column. But increasingly, everything I write and think about seems to come back to the same point – the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. That divide is tearing the world apart. And technology seems to be accelerating the forces causing the rift, rather than reversing them.

First, a warning: I am a Liberal. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my columns, but I did want to put it out there. And the reason I feel that warning is required it that with this column, I’m diving into the dangerous waters – I’m going to be talking about the differences between liberal and conservative brains, particularly those brains that are working in the media space.

Last week, I talked about the evolution of media bias through two – and what seems increasingly likely – three impeachment proceedings. Mainstream media has historically had a left bias. In a longitudinal study of journalism,  two professors at University of Indiana – Lars Willnat and David Weaver – found that in 2012, just 7% of American journalists identified themselves as Republican, while 28% said they were Democrats. Over 50% said they were Independent, but I suspect this is more a statement on the professed objectivity of journalists than their actual political leanings. I would be willing to bet that those independents sway left far more often than they sway right.

So, it’s entirely fair to say that mainstream media does have liberal bias. The question is – why? Is it a premediated conspiracy or just a coincidental correlation? I believe the bias is actually self-selected. Those that choose to go into journalism have brains that work in a particular way – a way that is most often found in those that fall on the liberal end of the spectrum.

I first started putting this hypothesis together when I read the following passage in Robert Sapolsky’s book “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” Sapolsky was talking about a growing number of studies looking at the cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives: “This literature has two broad themes. One is that rightists are relatively uncomfortable intellectually with ambiguity…The other is that leftists, well, think harder, have a greater capacity for what the political scientist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls ‘integrative complexity’.”

Sapolsky goes on to differentiate these intellectual approaches, “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”

Going from “gut to head” is a pretty good quality for a journalist. In fact, you could say it’s their job description.

Sapolsky cites a number of studies he bases this conclusion on. In the abstract of one of these studies, the researchers note: “Liberals are more likely to process information systematically, recognize differences in argument quality, and to be persuaded explicitly by scientific evidence, whereas conservatives are more likely to process information heuristically, attend to message-irrelevant cues such as source similarity, and to be persuaded implicitly through evaluative conditioning. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to rely on stereotypical cues and assume consensus with like-minded others.”

This is about as good a description of the differences between mainstream media and the alt-right media as I’ve seen. The researchers further note that, “Liberals score higher than conservatives on need for cognition and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives score higher than liberals on intuitive thinking and self-deception.”

That explains so much of the current situation we’re finding ourselves in. Liberals tend to be investigative journalists. Conservatives tend to be opinion columnists and pundits. One is using their head. The other is using their gut.

Of course, it’s not just the conservative media that rely on gut instinct. The Commander in Chief uses the same approach. In a 2016 article in the Washington Post, Marc Fisher probed Trump’s disdain for reading, “He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

I have nothing against intuition. The same Post articles goes on to give examples of other presidents who relied on gut instinct (Fisher notes, however; that even when these are factored in, Trump is still an outlier). But when the stakes are as high as they are now, I prefer intuition combined with some research and objective evaluation.

We believe in the concept of equality and fairness, as we should. For that reason, I hesitate to put yet another wall between conservatives and liberals. But – in seeking answers to complex questions – I think we have to be open and honest about the things that make us different. There is a reason some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives – our brains work differently*. And when those differences extend to our processing of our respective realities and the sources we turn to for information, we should be aware of them. We should take them into account in evaluating our media choices. We should go forward with open minds.

Unfortunately, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir. If you got this far in my column, you’re probably a liberal too.

* If you really want to dig further, check out the paper “Are Conservatives from Mars and Liberals from Venus?, Maybe Not So Much by Linda Skitka, one of the foremost researchers exploring this question.

Trump’s Impeachment: The Biggest Media Showdown of All Time?

Note: A shorter version of this ran in MediaPost where it was edited for length. This is the full version as I originally wrote it. GH

In my lifetime, the articles of Impeachment of have been prepared to go to the House of Representatives twice: once for Richard Nixon in 1974 and once for Bill Clinton in 1998. As this week begins, it looks like we’re heading for number three with Donald Trump. I thought it might be interesting to look these impeachment proceedings in the context of the media landscape. As I started my research, I realized this actually shows the dramatic shifts both in our media and in the culture of our ideologies. It’s worth taking a few minutes to examine them.

First, a little historical housekeeping. Two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon resigned before the articles got to the House for voting. Because I’m looking at impeachment in the context of media, we won’t spend too much time on Johnson, but we’ll still look at it for the history of a Republic Divided.

Impeachment tends to crop up when there is a deep ideological divide in the country. The rifts naturally extend to Washington and its political climate. What is fascinating is to see how these divides have been reflected in the media landscape as it has evolved.

Andrew Johnson, 1868

First of all, to provide a somewhat objective baseline to begin with, let’s begin with a quick assessment of each impeachment case using two criteria from David Greenberg, a professor of history from Rutgers, author and a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. First, was Impeachment and conviction justified? And secondly, was impeachment and conviction possible? Remember, no presidential impeachment case has won the vote in both houses, leading to the removal of a president.

With Andrew Johnson, Greenberg’s answer to those two questions was, “Justified? Probably not.” and “Possible? Most definitely.” Johnson survived the senate impeachment debate by a single vote.

The Impeachment of Johnson was a direct result of differing opinions over reconstruction after the civil war. A Democrat, Johnson ran headlong into resistance from a Republican controlled Congress and Senate. Although the odds were stacked against him, 10 Republicans broke party ranks and voted against impeachment in the senate, which fell one vote below the required two-thirds majority.

Richard Nixon, 1974

According to David Greenberg, Nixon’s impeachment was both justified and possible. Tricky Dick was heading for almost certain impeachment when he resigned on August 9, 1974.

The U.S. in 1974 was deeply divided ideologically but this rift did not extend to the media. The US media landscape was relatively monolithic in the 70’s, dominated by national newspapers and the three big television networks. Media coverage of the Watergate scandal followed the lead of one of those national papers – the Washington Post – and the now mythic reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. With a few exceptions, this media bloc definitely leaned left in its political views.

It’s also important to note the timeline of the Watergate revelations. Impeachment proceedings didn’t even begin until the Senate investigation was over a year old. By that time, there was substantial evidence pointing to both initial crimes and subsequent cover ups. The case was so damning – culminating in the release of the famous “smoking gun” tape – that even Republican support for Nixon quickly evaporated. We also have to remember that left-leaning media outlets had all the time in the world to erode public support for the president. This is not to condemn the journalism. It’s just acknowledging the media realities of the time.

The “Watergate Effect” would make its mark on national journalism for the next two decades. Suddenly, there was a flood of bright, idealistic (and yes – primarily left leaning) young people choosing journalism as a career. America’s right became increasingly frustrated with a media complex they saw as being dangerously biased to the left. One of the most vocal was Nixon’s own Executive Producer, a twenty-something named Roger Ailes.

Bill Clinton, 1998

This brings us to the Clinton Impeachment case, launched by an extra-marital affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. According to David Greenberg’s assessment, this impeachment was neither justified nor possible.

What is interesting about the Clinton case is how it marks the emergence of a right-wing media voice. The impeachment itself was largely a vendetta against the Clintons driven by Pentagon employee Linda Tripp and prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Tripp secretly recorded her conversations with Lewinsky in which she acknowledged the affair with Clinton. Lewinsky met Tripp after she had been reassigned to the Pentagon by White House aides hoping to avoid a scandal. Tripp then took the recordings to Newsweek hoping they would go public immediately. Given the implications of the story, Newsweek elected to sit on the story to give them the chance to do some further verification. Tripp was frustrated and had a book agent walk the tapes over to the Drudge Report, a fledgling Right-Wing story aggregator with a subscriber email list. They immediately published, causing a flustered mainstream media to follow suit.

Almost a year after the affair became public, Impeachment proceedings began. By this time, something called “Clinton Fatigue” had set in. Although the public was initially titillated by the salacious details, as the story dragged on, we all were struck with a collective and distasteful ennui. One got the sense that mainstream media were hoping the whole thing would eventually just go away. Eventually it did, after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate by all the Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

What Clinton’s impeachment did do was give a voice to the Right-Wing media which found a home in the explosion of cable channels and the very first online news sites. That same Roger Ailes was granted the helm of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. The Conservatives were able to outflank the established media machine by laying claim to the emerging media platforms. This was media with a difference. Although the left-wing bias of mainstream media was generally acknowledged by most, it was largely an unspoken truth. Most journalists professed to be resolutely neutral and unbiased. The Right-Wing media was not so subtle. Their role was to counteract what they felt was a leftist spin machine.

The Clinton Impeachment also drove another wedge into the right-left split that has widened ever since. The staffers on Kenneth Starr’s prosecution team included current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and recently resigned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Also, an ex-investment banker by the name of Steve Bannon was thinking he might give entertainment and media a shot.

Donald Trump, 2019

So, what do we have to look forward to? As we seem to be barreling towards impeachment, how will the story play out in today’s media and political landscape?

Professor David Greenberg is quick to point out that these are uncharted waters. It makes little sense to look for historical precedent, because this impeachment will be unlike anything we have seen before. For what it’s worth, he says the Impeachment of Donald Trump is justified, but is highly unlikely to be successful, given that the Senate is controlled by a seemingly uncrackable Republican majority.

But here are the wild cards that we in the media should be watching:

 1) the speed at which this is playing out is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We are only one week into this.

2) We have never had a President – or a White House – like this.

3) We have never had a media landscape like this. There is a very vocal Right-Wing Media Machine that has proven to be every bit as effective as the mainstream media.

4) The way we consume – and interact – with media is light years removed from two decades ago. This shift has been so massive that we are still grappling with understanding it.

5) The general public has never been networked the way we are now. We have seen the fallout from network effects both in the 2016 US Election and the UK’s Brexit vote. What part will the network play in an Impeachment?

Buckle up!

The Internet: Nasty, Brutish And Short

When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid to late 90s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter. What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.

The internet lures us into thinking with half a brain. Actually, with less than half a brain – and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half. The culprit is the speed of connection and reaction. We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.

Daniel Kahneman’s monumental book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” lays out the two loops we use for mental processing. There’s the fast loop, our instinctive response to situations, and there’s the slow loop, our thoughtful processing of reality.

Humans need both loops. This is especially true in the complexity of today’s world. The more complex our reality, the more we need the time to absorb and think about it.

 If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in the Hobbesian State of Nature (from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): The “natural condition of mankind” is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.”

That is not the world I want to live in. I want a world of compassion, empathy and respect. But the better angels of our nature rely on thoughtfulness. They take time to come to their conclusions.

With its dense interconnectedness, the internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of “cancel” and “callout” culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

We seem to think this is OK because for every post we see that makes us rage inside, we also see posts that make us gush and goo. Every hateful tweet we see is leavened with a link to a video that tugs at our heartstrings. We are quick to point out that, yes, there is the bad — but there is an equal amount of good. Either can go viral. Social media simply holds up a mirror that reflects the best and worst of us.

But that’s not really true. All these posts have one thing in common: They are digested too quickly to allow for thoughtfulness. Good or bad, happy or mad — we simply react and scroll down. FOMO continues to drive us forward to the next piece of emotionally charged clickbait. 

There’s a reason why social media is so addictive: All the content is aimed directly at our “Thinking Fast” hot buttons. And evolution has reinforced those hot buttons with generous discharges of neurocchemicals that act as emotional catalysts. Our brain online is a junkie jonesing for a fix of dopamine or noradrenaline or serotonin. We get our hit and move on.

Technology is hijacking our need to pause and reflect. Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message and, in this case, the medium is one that is hardwired directly to the inner demons of our humanity.It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Relevance is the new gold standard in marketing. In an  article in the Harvard Business Review written last year, John Zealley, Robert Wollan and Joshua Bellin — three senior execs at Accenture — outline five stages of marketing (paraphrased courtesy of a post from Phillip Nones):

  1. Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  2. Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  3. Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  4. Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

This last stage – according to marketers past and present – should be the golden era of marketing:

“The perfect advertisement is one of which the reader can say, ‘This is for me, and me alone.” 

— Peter Drucker

“Audiences crave tailored messages that cater to them specifically and they are willing to offer information that enables marketers to do so.”

 Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Umm…no! In fact, hell, no!

I agree that relevance is an important thing. And in an ethical world, the exchange Tash talks about would be a good thing, for both consumers and marketers. But we don’t live in such a world. The world we live in has companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Stop Thinking Like a Marketer!

There is a cognitive whiplash that happens when our perspective changes from that of marketer to that of a consumer. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve even prompted it on occasion. But to watch it in 113 minutes of excruciating detail, you should catch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. 

The documentary is a journalistic peeling of the onion that is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was kicked off by the whistle blowing of Christopher Wylie, a contract programmer who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. But to me, the far more interesting story is that of Brittany Kaiser, the director of business Development of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The documentary digs into the tortured shift of perspective as she transitions from thinking like a marketer to a citizen who has just had her private data violated. It makes for compelling viewing.

Kaiser shifted her ideological compass about as far as one could possibly do, from her beginnings as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and a lobbyist for Amnesty International to one of the chief architects of the campaigns supporting Trump’s presidential run, Brexit and other far right persuasion blitzkriegs. At one point, she justifies her shift to the right by revealing her family’s financial struggle and the fact that you don’t get paid much as an underling for Democrats or as a moral lobbyist. The big bucks are found in the ethically grey areas.  Throughout the documentary, she vacillates between the outrage of a private citizen and the rationalization of a marketer. She is a woman torn between two conflicting perspectives.

We marketers have to stop kidding ourselves and justifying misuse of personal data with statements like the one previously quoted from Kevin Tash. As people, we’re okay. I like most of the marketers I know. But as professional marketers, we have a pretty shitty track record. We trample privacy, we pry into places we shouldn’t and we gleefully high-five ourselves when we deliver the goods on a campaign — no matter who that campaign might be for and what its goals might be. We are very different people when we’re on the clock.

We are now faced with what may be the most important questions of our lives: How do we manage our personal data? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who has the right to use it? When we answer those questions, let’s do it as people, and not marketers. Because there is a lot more at stake here than the ROI rates on a marketing campaign.

Catching Travel by the Long Tail

It’s been 13 years since then-Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson wrote his book “The Long Tail.” His analysis of the “Amazon Economy” completely flipped our notions of supply and demand. In theory, The Long Tail should have ushered in a democratization of the marketplace, spreading the wealth among a greater number of participants. And, in a perfect implementation of the Long Tail, that would be true. But bits and pieces of Long-Tail economics have ported over to a number of markets — and sometimes, an imperfect fit creates some undesirable consequences.

Long-Tail Economics

In order to create an effective Long-Tail market, three conditions have to be met.

Unlimited inventory: Products that can be delivered digitally with no manufacturing costs free markets from the physical restraints of production and warehousing. Inventories are unlimited and fulfillment can be on demand.

Unlimited shelf space: Similarly, products in the digital domain allow for infinite shelf space — simply because no actual “space” is required. Spotify, Netflix and Amazon can make millions of digital copies available.

Perfect information: The last requirement is sometimes the most problematic. In order for the Long Tail marketplace to be the most effective, consumers need perfect information about their options. They need to know everything about anything that’s available and be able to make their choice accordingly.

This is impractical in the real world. Even the most effective search platform falls well short of providing perfect information.

Theoretically, if all three prerequisites are met, demand flows down from the head to the tail, shortening the first and extending the second. But Long-Tail economics don’t necessarily apply equally to every marketplace. Take travel, for instance.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In a recent MediaPost column looking at marketing travel, Harvey Chipkin outlined the problems being felt worldwide by “overtourism.”  Barcelona is a cautionary tale of what happens when consumers are deluded by the illusion of a Long-Tail market and suppliers are dealing with the realities of an infrastructure held back by physical constraints.

First, let’s deal with the delusion. We travel a lot differently than our parents did. Back in the ’80s, travel to Europe was the sole domain of the rich and famous. If one of us mere mortals did hit the continent, chances were we were doing the European Bus Tour Trifecta: London, Paris and Rome. For most of us, Disneyland was about as exotic and adventurous as our travel plans got.

But then we started craving authentic experiences. We wanted the thrill of unearthing the hidden gem. That was about the time we discovered Barcelona.

No one went to Barcelona in 1990. But then the city hosted the Olympics in 1992. This exposure on the world stage boosted tourism, effectively doubling it by 2000. Barcelona was cool, it was hip — and, most importantly, our next-door neighbors had never been there.

But it was the Long Tail of travel that really broke the back of Barcelona when it came to tourism. From 2000 to 2010, with the advent of the web and the explosion of available travel information, tourism to Barcelona again doubled and almost tripled.

Today, about 20 million annual visitors flock to a city with a population less than one tenth that number. The city is groaning under the weight of all those sun-burned bodies desperately searching for authenticity, to the point that Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, is threatening to slam the door on those gringo turistas in order to make the city livable again.

The delusion of the Long Tail leads us to believe there’s a smorgasbord of authentic travel options just waiting for us. But the reality falls far short of that. If we look at the prerequisites of a Long-Tail market, we begin to see why.  We can argue that there is unlimited shelf space. There is no corner of the world we can’t travel to if we have the budget and inclination. Destinations we never heard of just a few decades ago are now the new hot spots.

Perfect information is a little more of a challenge. When the options are limitless, we run into the limits of our own cognition. Working memory being what it is, we can’t endlessly juggle potential destinations. We rely on a search and suggestion engine like TripAdvisor. And there we run into the realities of the Matthew Effect: The rich tend to get richer and the poor get poorer. This can be otherwise stated as the Rule of Google: “No one goes past the first page.” Shelf space may be unlimited, but screen real estate is anything but.

Finally, as Barcelona is painfully discovering, there are definite limits to the inventory of authentic, one-of-a-kind travel experiences. Once, visiting La Sagrada Familia Basilica was an awe-inspiring, soul-stirring spiritual journey. Today, it’s a highly manufactured tourism machine that usually sells out for the day by 9 a.m.

This means that rather than the trickle-down effect we would hope to see in a Long-Tail market, demand tends to bunch up due to network effects. A new “authentic” experience climbs to the top of the listing and is suddenly inundated with new demands.

As Chipkin said in his column: “After a few people get the privilege of cooking with a Contessa in her ancestral home or taking in a remote tribal village … these “authentic” locals (and their neighbors) begin to catch on and think like entrepreneurs. In come the value engineers and the souvenir shops … and out goes the authenticity.”

Seeking Sustainability

The Barcelona effect is beginning to be seen everywhere, including my own little corner of Canada. Forward-thinking tourism marketers are trying to get ahead of the deluge by finding ways to push traffic to the less-popular margins, artificially creating a Long-Tail effect. Labels like “slow tourism” and “immersive travel” are emerging to try to encourage a different mindset among visitors. But, in the end, most tourism operators are still trapped within the tyranny of TripAdvisor mindset, hoping to climb to the top of the rankings. They feel the potential trade-off is worth it.

To them, being “too popular” sounds like a tomorrow kind of problem.

Photos: Past, Present and Future

I was at a family reunion this past week. While there, my family did what families do at reunions: We looked at family photos.

In our case, our photographic history started some 110 years or so ago, with my great-great grandfather George and his wife Kezia. We have a stunning  picture of the couple, with Kezia wearing an ostrich feather hat.

George and Kezia Ching – Redondo Beach

At the time of the photo, George was an ostrich feather dyer in Hollywood, California. Apparently, there was a need for dyed ostrich feathers in turn-of-the-century Hollywood. That need didn’t last for long. The bottom fell out of the ostrich feather market and George and Kezia turned their sights north of the 49th, high-tailing it for Canada.

We’re a lucky family. We have four generations of photographic evidence of my mother’s forebears. They were solidly middle class and could afford the luxury of having a photo taken, even around the turn of the century. There were plenty of preserved family images that fueled many conversations and sparked memories as we gathered the clan.

What was interesting to me is that some 110 years after this memorable portrait was taken, we also took many new photos so we could remember this reunion in the future.  With all the technological change that has happened since George and Kezia posed in all their ostrich-feather-accessorized finery, the basic format of a two-dimensional visual representation was still our chosen medium for capturing the moment.

We talk about media a lot here at MediaPost — enough that it’s included in the headline of the post you’re reading. I think it’s worth a quick nod of appreciation to media that have endured for more than a century. Books and photos both fall into this category. Great-Great Grandfather George might be a bit flustered if he was looking at a book on a Kindle or viewing the photo on an iPhone, but the format of the medium itself would not be that foreign to him. He would be able to figure it out.

What dictates longevity in media? I think we have an inherent love for media that are a good match for both our senses and our capacity to imagine. Books give us the cognitive room to imagine worlds that no CGI effect has yet been able to match. And a photograph is still the most convenient way to render permanent the fleeting images that chase across our visual cortex. This is all the more true when those images are comprised of the faces we love. Like books, photos also give our minds the room to fill in the blanks, remembering the stories that go with the static image.

Compare a photo to something like a video. We could easily have taken videos to capture the moment. All of has had a pretty good video camera in our pocket. But we didn’t. Why not?

Again, we have to look at intended purpose at the moment of future consumption. Videos are linear. They force their own narrative arc upon us. We have to allocate the time required to watch the video to its conclusion. But a photo is randomly accessed. Our senses consume it at their own pace and prerogative, free of the restraints of the medium itself. For things like communal memories at a family reunion, a photo is the right match. There are circumstances where a video would be a better fit. This wasn’t one of them.

Our Family – 2019

There is one thing about photos that will be different moving forward. They are now in the digital domain, which means they can be stored with no restraints on space. It also means that we can take advantage of appended metadata. For the sake of my descendants, I hope this makes the bond between the photo and the stories a little more durable than what we currently deal with. If we were lucky, we had a quick notation on the back of an old photo to clarify the whos, whens and wheres.

A few of my more archivally inclined cousins started talking about the future generations of our family. When they remember us, what media would they be using? Would they be looking at the many selfies and digital shots that were taken in 2019 and try to remember who was that person between Cousin Dave and Aunt Lorna? What would be the platform used to store the photos? What will be the equivalent of the family album in 2119? How will they be archiving their own memories?

I suspect that if I were there, I wouldn’t be that surprised at the medium of choice.

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.