Just two years ago, he was the master of all he surveyed. He chaired the board meetings. He was paid in the millions. He graced the covers of magazines. He was smart, he had vision, he was tough as nails. He was a leader of the global business revolution. He was the CEO.
Now he sits alone in his office. His assistant holds all of his calls. CNBC is on television, and the news is not good. The press has turned ugly. The ingrates on the board have asked him to move up the next scheduled meeting. Regulators see him as a potential target. Politicians look at him as an issue. Investors assume that everything he says is self-serving nonsense. And the poor bastard is paralyzed. He can't believe it. He asks himself, "How can this be happening?"
The question is the answer. It's happening because it turns out that these Masters of the Universe, these magazine cover boys, have revealed themselves to be . . . simpering yuppie wimps. If adversity is the test of character, then so far, today's CEOs are failing miserably. By turns disagreeable, petulant, and self-pitying, they have as a group failed their employees, their investors, and their customers. They border on the pathetic.
Here's what real business leaders do. They go out and rally the troops, plant the flag, and make a stand. They confront hostile audiences, and they deal with the press. They go after the short sellers. If the issue is confidence, they conduct themselves confidently. If the issue is trust, they make their company's business transparent. If the issue is character, they tell the truth. They do not shirk responsibility; they assume command.
Here's what leaders don't do. They don't blame underlings. They don't blame their predecessor. They don't complain about press coverage. They don't whine about Wall Street. They don't mindlessly cut research and development. They don't fire 4,000 people in the hope that it will bump up their company's stock for the weekend. They don't obfuscate, dissemble, or lie. They don't hide behind a retinue of handlers and lawyers and public-relations fools.
In the realm of publicly owned companies, nothing so perfectly captures the fiber of today's whimpering CEOs than the stock-buyback announcement. Stock buybacks are step one in rebuilding confidence in a publicly traded company. After a dive in the company's stock price, the CEO announces that, while everyone else is selling that stock, his company is planning to repurchase as much of the stock as it can afford. He knows the value of the enterprise. He knows all the numbers. And he is willing to bet on it. Stock buybacks are insider trading at its best - they send a clear signal that management believes that the company's prospects are bright.
Except that today's CEOs aren't following through. They're saying that they'll do it, but the likelihood is that they probably won't. And everybody knows it! The people who run mutual funds and those who work at high-powered investment firms think that fewer than half of the announced company-buyback plans will actually occur. While many have been announced, probably 6 out of 10 are nothing more than public-relations gimmicks.
How about that? In the middle of an epidemic of corporate scandal, dishonesty, and malfeasance, the first response of a large number of current CEOs is to lie. What are these people thinking? It's public information. And it will make a great little story, the perfect box score: Here's what they said they were going to do, and here's what they actually did. (As it happens, the Wall Street Journal is keeping score.)
Another behavioral pattern of the new breed of wimp CEOs is the disappearing act. How many CEOs of major Wall Street investment firms have directly addressed the (politely phrased) issue of "investor confidence"? That would be one. Henry Paulson of Goldman Sachs spoke at the National Press Club in Washington and actually took questions after his speech. None of the others have said a word, except in carefully worded advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They haven't been struck dumb. They're hiding.
When CEOs hide out together, another behavioral pattern of the new breed emerges. You might call it the "Wall Street whine." It goes something like this. Not so long ago, Wall Street demanded managed earnings (steady, predictable growth). No managed earnings, no rising stock price. Now Wall Street says that it doesn't want managed earnings, it wants the numbers unpolished. So CEOs deliver unpolished earnings, and Wall Street hammers the stock on slow or no quarterly growth. The wimpy CEO chorus bellows, "Not fair!" Poor lambs. The evil meanies went and changed the rules on you.
Lying, hiding, whining - what are we missing here? Oh yes, blame assessment. Over lunch, I recently gave a talk to executives from one of the world's great financial supermarkets about the upcoming mid-term elections. After I finished my remarks, they gave me their views on what had gone wrong. It came down to one name: Paul O'Neill (the secretary of the treasury). It was all his fault. If Robert Rubin was still in there, none of this would have happened. I think they actually believed what they were saying.
The good news is that not all CEOs are behaving this way. General Electric's Jeff Immelt, Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett, and Microsoft's Bill Gates aren't lying, hiding, whining, or blame-shifting. They're fighting the good fight. They're alive to the opportunities of the current economic turmoil. Their companies will emerge from all of this as winners. Because a fundamental ingredient of business success is leadership. And the granular stuff of leadership is courage, conviction, and character.
John Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer and consultant, works in media, politics, and technology. Read his weekday musings on the Web (www.johnellis.blogspot.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.