Schumpeter on ‘The Cult of the Faceless Boss’

In the Economist, November 14, the columnist Schumpeter advanced an argument that 'the corporate world is increasingly rejecting imperial chief executives in favour of anonymous managers'. It seems to me that he/she (the columnist – faceless as hiding behind the pseudonym so unclear whether male or female) is confusing 'blandness' with external visibility.

Perhaps blandness is the attribute required to do a successful job and not run the company into the ground. The men mentioned in paragraph two: Sam Palmisano at IBM, Tony Hayward at BP, Terry Leahy at Tesco, Vittorio Colao at Vodaphone are all reasonably successful at their jobs. IBM's third quarter results, for example, revealed that:

Third-quarter net income was $3.2 billion compared with $2.8 billion in the third quarter of 2008, an increase of 14 percent. Total revenues for the third quarter of 2009 of $23.6 billion increased 1 percent from the second quarter of 2009, and decreased 7 percent (5 percent, adjusting for currency) from the third quarter of 2008.

BP announced underlying profits of $4.7 billion for the third quarter of 2009, an increase of 60% over the second quarter, and well above market estimates. Tesco (the UK supermarket) is delivering strong growth and Vodaphone's results 'met expectations'.

So not too much bland about performance. If these bland bosses prefer to remain out of the limelight so much the better – maybe they're focusing on guiding their companies through hard times rather than doing on-stage performances.

Schumpeter takes them to task for spouting the 'same tired management cliches'. Yes, there is a repetitiveness about the language – but perhaps repetition might lead to something actually changing – e.g. judging companies on their activation of 'the virtues of sustainability' might supersede the judgments on their quarterly profitability which might make longer term thinking a viable proposition and even lead to a better existence for more people?

He/she then seems to equate facelessness with humility (I think that's the argument). But here's the paradox – apparently "business journalists have taken to producing glowing profiles of self-effacing and self-denying bosses" – doesn't that immediately make these bosses externally visible i.e. no longer 'faceless', so they have faces and are also humble.

It's odd (alarming even) that the journalist tells us to "Think of the people who have shaped the modern business landscape, and 'faceless' and 'humble' are not the first words that come to mind." No, exactly that's why we don't want more of the types of people who have shaped the modern business landscape – we don't want a repeat of the last two or so years.

Let's have a column about thoughtful, reflective, low (external) profile, business leaders who are skilled and successful at steadily improving the lot of their employees, communities, and the greater environment. Maybe we could learn from them.

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