“I’ve never seen a time like this,” says Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News and, for the past 20 years, one of the greatest architects of power in the country. Ailes has a gift: He knows what makes people stars. He’s most famous for helping transform a fringy California governor, Ronald Reagan, first into a president and then into a legend. Ailes kisses frogs and turns them into presences. But now, as he assesses the art of power, Ailes has worries.
Jack Welch of GE, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, Ken Lay of Enron, Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Gary Winnick of Global Crossing, John Rigas of Adelphia, and — who knows? — perhaps even Martha Stewart have all crashed and burned using the traditional tactics of power: risk, visibility, drive, and naked ambition. What’s left? As the class of 2006 enters the corridors of power this fall, who’s wearing the shiniest faces topped by the perkiest beanies? We’re enrolling a freshman leadership class that looks different from any we’ve seen.
“It’s the peculiar nature of power to shed its skin like this every 15 years or so, like a snake,” says Ailes. “When a generational shift coincides with disillusion with power, we throw out the old manuals and look for different ways to lead. This is a shakeout period. People are assessing whether the goal is power or money. There’s a crisis of faith in almost every area of our lives. Most great civilizations last only 200 years. So this new class of leaders is of fundamental importance.”
Ailes predicts a fundamental power shift: The class of ’06 will redefine power for the next 10 years. September 11 marked a leadership transition. Boomers are about to become the new voices of leaders.
If you want to sail to the top of the class of ’06, you need to have been born between 1946 and 1964. Your psychological makeup will be different from that of the previous generation: You won’t define September 11 with a capital T for “tragedy,” but as a chance to prove yourself. The word for great work won’t be “satisfying,” but “transcendental.” You will simplify, not analyze: You’ll think in terms of good and evil. Your lasting heroes are Abe Lincoln and FDR — not as chief executives, but as crusaders in war. You won’t care if everyone loves you. You will be more apt to take sides in a battle to the finish.
In the world of business, where star CEOs have always reigned, what makes a star will also change. “People with dynamic personalities are the ones who will rise to the top,” Ailes says. “But they are going to be different. CEOs are not trusted now. The people who can be trusted will take over. Nixon was swept out, and three years later, Jimmy Carter wandered in talking about peace and love. Carter told the truth about many things, including home heating, but he finally bored everybody to death. It wasn’t a time to be dramatic, and it’s like that now: better to be cool and low-key. This will last for a while, and then we’ll be back to the theatrics.”
What Ailes says, historians confirm. Neil Howe, author of the best-seller Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (William Morrow, 1992), argues that after the transitional Carter-like figure, leadership will be different: “The peak of the new leadership will be seen around 2006 and last until 2010 or maybe longer.” There are big differences between the now-failing CEOs who are sixtysomething, Howe says, and the boomers, who are still under 60. People from the preboomer generation see their time passing. “They’ve taken us from the Cold War to the Information Age, thanks to their ability to open up the system and make everything more complex,” says Howe. “But they paid a price for their talents: They never really experienced leadership. They are the only class to have had no representation in the White House.”
People from the class of ’06 will finally realize that the “boom” in their name not only refers to a population explosion, but also to a loud noise, as in a bomb. In their college days, boomers were advocates of the “you gotta break eggs to make omelets” school of direct action. Now, as freshmen world leaders, they consistently score higher in polls because of their desire for a showdown and open conflict: Go in and get Saddam, even if it means a loss of lives.
“They fixate on values and have less of a tendency to compromise,” Howe explains. “For good versus evil, what are you going to do? Split the difference? Evil empire is now a standard. Evil genes, evil looks, evildoers: Such clear distinctions are fundamental to boomers. They like truth. They want what’s solid and genuine. For them, power is about finding out where people stand.”
How will the class of ’06 use its power? Its leaders will make institutions even flatter, simpler, and faster to move — but they won’t respect many of the perks of leadership. They’ll bring back institutional trust, not because they think it’s a good idea, but because people fear the consequences of not having strong institutions.
The phone rings on Ailes’s desk: He has to take a call from the main power figure in his life, Rupert Murdoch. As they talk, I wonder about these two leaders: These two preboomer men are prepping a new class of leaders — but will they be a part of it? The class of ’06 will be driving Fox News and its parent, News Corp., in four years. Good night, Roger? Good night, Rupert? Maybe their boomer values are what’s made them so effective, keeping them at their peak when the CNNs and other media and tech companies are struggling. These two have always been break-the-eggs kind of guys. Forever young, they represent an early, perhaps eternal, crop of boomers.
Harriet Rubin (hrubin@fastcompany. com), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Find her columns on the Web (//www.fastcompany.com/keyword/rubin).