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.