The charismatic CEO differs from the charismatic politician in fundamental ways. The distinction is almost between beauty and beast. The politician wants to be loved (there is often a sexual element to political charisma); the charismatic CEO doesn’t care if he’s hated. Accordingly, we’ve come to think of the politician as phony and the CEO as real. To be real is to be hard-assed. To be a hard-ass – like, for instance, GE’s “Neutron Jack” Welch – is to be a good manager. To be a good manager – to run a profitable enterprise – not only forgives but justifies a wide range of unrestrained, or even unsocialized, behavior. There is no arguing with success.
The past decade has been a dismal time for politicians and a defining era for the charismatic CEO, culminating with the publication this week of Welch’s $7.1 million autobiography, and with Michael Bloomberg’s race for mayor.
While the charismatic CEO is, of course, neither author nor politician, he is, like author and politician, full of opinions. There are few people who feel as free to express themselves without restraint or fear of contradiction as the charismatic CEO. Nobody ever makes a successful CEO shut up (the recent instance of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer coming verbally unglued at a corporate event is a case in point). Such prolixity becomes a corporate culture’s rule of law and defining wisdom.
The charismatic CEO is rarely a conversationalist, and usually something of a monologuist – and often a repetitive one. Knowing the effect of his words, and wanting to reproduce that effect, he says them again and again. (The ultimate repetitive-stress syndrome of any job may be having to listen to your boss.) That’s effective management. It’s also a classic sales technique – and almost every charismatic CEO is a salesman. You win by filibustering – filling the air with unfettered bonhomie, practiced aggression, aphoristic certainties, veiled threats, and relentless self-promotion.
The charismatic CEO, seen from a slightly different angle, is a fairly traditional blowhard. But seen full face, as he is officially presented, he’s a no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get straight shooter.
In my last column I wrote about what I saw as the strange logic of Michael Bloomberg’s run for mayor – the weird combination of entitlement and implausibility. Bloomberg, I believe, is able to be taken seriously as a candidate because of our wide tolerance and fascination for the charismatic CEO. Not unexpectedly, the column produced passionate pro and con e-mails, especially from Bloomberg employees; present or former employees of a charismatic CEO tend to see him as god or devil.
The column also produced something else – an artifact (or, as we say in the journalism business, a document). A smoking gun of sorts: an actual example of literal hard-ass words. Most often we don’t get to see real CEO hard-assedness, we get a ghostwriter’s version of it (isolated and disputed remarks sometimes slip into the public record through lawsuits and depositions – for instance, Bloomberg’s alleged, and denied, admonition to a pregnant employee: “Kill it”). But this document seemed to contain verbatim boss-words – the actual substance of the theoretical charisma.
The artifact came in the form of a photocopied booklet with the title The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg – 32 pages of Bloomberg quips, anecdotes, and aphorisms with occasional illustrations – dated February 14, 1990, when Bloomberg was a much smaller company, and Bloomberg himself a much less visible figure (this was seven years before publication of his book, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, which has a similar, if more sanitized, tone).
“Make the customer think he’s getting laid when he’s getting fucked,” is the booklet’s first Bloomberg quotation.
“A good salesperson asks for the order,” went the second piece of purported Bloomberg wisdom. “It’s like the guy who goes into a bar, and walks up to every gorgeous girl there, and says ‘Do you want to fuck?’ He gets turned down a lot – but he gets fucked a lot, too!”
A competitor is, according to Bloomberg, necessarily a “cokehead, womanizing, fag.”
The hee-haw stuff is also mixed with earnest stuff: “I’m always amazed by our salespeople’s acumen. Many times I’m with a salesman in a presentation and he or she will show a capability I never knew existed.” There are business bromides: “By definition, 50% of the people don’t want a level playing field.” Clichés: “It’s all over but the shouting.” Petty plagiarisms: “Don’t get even – get revenge.” And self-dating cultural references: “What do I want? I want an exclusive, 10-year contract, an automatic extension, and I want you to pay me. And I want a blow job from Jane Fonda. Have you seen Jane Fonda lately? Not bad for fifty.”
While I was not yet sure of the provenance of the artifact, or the context within which it was created (if it was parody, it was very deft), it credibly captured the tone and sensibility, from the profane to the banal to the threatening, of life lived in proximity to a successful CEO in love with his own voice and prejudices.
“How do you motivate someone?” Bloomberg is said to have said. “Simple. Are they addicted to three meals a day?”
“Always pick a fight with someone smaller than you,” he advises. “The Royal family – what a bunch of misfits – a gay, an architect, that horsey faced lesbian, and a kid who gave up Koo Stark for some fat broad,” he opines.
“If Jesus was a Jew, why does he have a Puerto Rican first name?” he is said to have wondered – for yuks or other reasons.
After a dedication in the booklet to “the President of BLOOMBERG Financial Markets, The Greatest Company in the World,” there is an “Editor’s Note” that reads: “Yes, these are all actual quotes. No, nothing had been embellished or exaggerated. And yes, some things were too outrageous to include. When I joined BLOOMBERG Financial Markets, I wondered if I had inadvertently joined a religious sect, such was the dedication of the employees to its founder, and their enthusiasm for the company. Today, I’m a convert. And when we rent Madison Square Garden for mass nuptials, I’ll be there.”
The editor’s note is signed by “E. DeM.” This was quite likely Elisabeth DeMarse, a former longtime Bloomberg executive who I knew was now the CEO of Bankrate, a publicly traded financial-information Internet company.
I called her. Our conversation was terse and awkward. She seemed alarmed that I had the booklet, then wanted to know where I got it, then made me describe it in detail, then said there weren’t more than a dozen copies in existence. She said: “It was made for Mike’s birthday. He’s got a leather-bound copy. His inner circle always gives him presents like this – videos about him or scrapbooks or mock newspapers about his life and accomplishments.”
“You prepared it?”
“There were other people who helped,” she answered. “It was an office project.”
I read from the booklet: “The three biggest lies are: the check’s in the mail, I’ll respect you in the morning, and I’m glad I’m Jewish.” I said: “He actually said that?”
I read another Bloombergism: “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s.” And another: “I know for a fact that any self-respecting woman who walks past a construction site and doesn’t get a whistle will turn around and walk past again and again until she does get one.”
“This is Bloomberg culture,” she said. “You have to understand, Mike is very uncensored.” After a second, she went on: “When Mike says outrageous things, it’s sort of a test. It’s a loyalty test. It’s a bonding thing when everyone laughs. You stop thinking that it might be inappropriate.”
“Is all of this a direct quote – these are his actual words?”
I couldn’t resist quoting Bloomberg again: “I make it a rule never to go to Queens – and since that eliminates both airports I don’t travel a great deal.” I found another New York slur: “I told my good friend Liz Holtzman that she should arrange 24-hour protection for me and my family – because the minute they’re at risk in this city, I’m moving my family and my 200 New York City employees out of here.”
“It’s his patter – he’s on cruise control,” DeMarse said. “He says this stuff to customers and new hires and anyone who comes into the office. These are his lines. Everything in there I’ve heard him say many times. I sat next to him for seven years.”
“Was it supposed to be funny when you gave it to him? Like a roast? What was the tone of this present supposed to be?”
She paused to consider. “Adulatory.”
“And how did he react to the gift?”
“He was touched. He loves things that are about himself. He saw this as a tribute, a testimonial – which it was. He wanted everyone to get a copy.”
The present-day political question is clear: Is the person who makes such statements a racist-sexist homophobe, or just someone with a questionable sense of taste and humor? The latter is the context argument. For Bloomberg, as for Peter Bart, the editor of Variety who was recently suspended for like-minded remarks, you can make the case that this is a kind of organizational patois. Saying the unsayable (or at least the inappropriate) can even pass for a kind of out-of-the-box thinking. (“He’s so over-the-top,” people say admiringly.)
For Wall Street, the Bloomberg wit and wisdom is everyday stuff. Bloomberg is just talking the talk.
On the other hand, what does it mean when you treasure such idiocies – when your organization officially elevates them to pearls of wit and wisdom?
It may not indicate a larger tolerance of racism-sexism-homophobia than exists anywhere else, but it represents, I think, an institutional acceptance of the arrogance, cruelty, carelessness, and rulelessness of the CEO.
It’s about dominance – his dominance – and the pleasure he takes in dominating. You hate him (he will make you hate him), but you love him, too (you have no choice).
Across countless political scandals, we’ve seen heretofore respected and charismatic politicians revealed as craven and venal. In response, we’ve come to think of CEOs, who, in fact, run the real precincts of our livelihoods, as our actual leaders and role models.
It is perhaps a natural swing of the pendulum that we begin to learn that the Neutron Jack, Chainsaw Al, bottom-line, my-way-or-the-highway charismatic CEO is as likely to be the most emotionally stunted, attention-craving, socially maladroit, casually cruel, spectacular boor in the room.