Brandt On Leadership -- Heroes Schmeroes

In business it's still better to be lucky than good.

Boy, it just gets harder and harder to be a hero-worshipper. In the 1970s, Watergate revealed that -- Shock! -- politicians were sometimes liars more interested in money and power than good government. In the 1980s, free agency came to pro sports and I learned that -- Shock! -- professional athletes sometimes played not for love of the game, but for the money. In the 1990s, I spent most of a decade reading glowing profiles in Fortune, Forbes and -- Shock! --

IndustryWeek about hero CEOs who selflessly sacrificed for the good of their companies and the American way of life, only to discover -- Shock! Shock! Shock! -- that many of these executives, too, were in it not to invent new business models, but for the money.

I'd sing along with Simon and Garfunkel -- Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? -- if recent biographies hadn't revealed that even Joe DiMaggio wasn't as heroic as, well, Joe DiMaggio.

Even worse for us business hero-worshippers is what was revealed by the recent spate of corporate misdeeds, Eliot Spitzer investigations and CEO resignations: When corporate performance looks too good to be true, it probably is.

I'm reminded of a book proposal I wrote several years ago. It was to be called "Repeat Performance," and its premise was that while any average CEO could get lucky once, only a truly great CEO could succeed dramatically at two separate companies. It wasn't a bad idea as business books go (though never to be mistaken for "Moby Dick" or even "Mr. Popper's Penguins"), especially since I had the kinds of metrics that business readers love:

  • A Repeat Performance CEO must have led at least two public companies, each with revenues of $1 billion or more.
  • The CEO must have led each of those companies for at least three years.
  • The CEO must have created a sustainable annual profit improvement of at least $100 million at each of those companies.

Tough criteria, and at the time I ran the numbers in 2001 I could only find seven CEOs who qualified. The book proposal promised -- Shock! -- to reveal the secrets of this Magnificent Seven's extraordinary leadership skills, visionary strategies, blah-blah-frigging-blah. I had visions of bestsellerdom and a second home in the Caribbean, if only some publisher would recognize my genius.

Which, sad to say, I am still waiting for.

But a funny thing happened to those seven CEOs on the way to 2004:

  • One settled a massive claim for his firm with the SEC and Spitzer, announcing his own retirement in the meantime.
  • One saw the second of his Repeat Performance companies go into the tank just a few short years after handing it to his successor (in an eerie reprise of what happened to his first Repeat Performance company).
  • A third retired amid whispers that his real strength had not been leadership, but earnings management.

In short, close to half my Repeat Performers turned out to be, more or less, lucky SOB's who didn't stick around long enough (or leave enough damaging memos) to get hoisted by their own petards. It still would have made for one hell of a book, but not in the hero-worshipping sense that most business primers are. Because if, in the end, even the most successful CEOs are just the ones who got lucky, then probably the most important thing that matters in becoming a business hero, no matter how fleeting, is persistence. As in waiting until you get lucky enough for your hard work to pay off. As in being in the right place when one of your 10,000 ideas meets the right need. As in waiting patiently for the world to notice just how incredibly smart you are, and to reward you for it.

Like I said, in case any book publishers just happen to be reading this, the name -- Shock! -- is B-R-A-N-D-T.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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