Straight Talk

CEOs are not the VIPs they think they are.

I am bleary-eyed from counting "I-words." Readers submitted almost 400 words after I asked them to replace the "I" in VIP when describing the best and worst CEOs they know. Ninety-nine were positive; 298 were negative. And a few were ambidextrous and could swing either way. There were no winners among the contributors because none of them listed all 10 of the most-mentioned positive words and none listed all 10 of the most-mentioned negative words. There were no winners among the CEOs either, because the "I-Words" contributed were so overwhelmingly negative. I'm wondering what this says about CEOs. Certainly they are not the "very important people" they think they are. Read on, and you'll get a glimpse of what your employees or colleagues really think of you, but are afraid to say.

  • "I-Words" describing the best CEOs readers know, in order of number of mentions: innovative, intuitive, imaginative, inspirational, informed, industrious, impressive, ingenious, inclusive, incisive.
  • "I-Words" describing the worst CEOs, in order of number of mentions: insensitive, immature, indecisive, incompetent, inept, ill-mannered, irritating, insincere, idiotic, impulsive.
  • The 10 longest words describing the best CEOs: interdependent, indefatigable, imperturbable, irrepressible, inexhaustible, indemonstrable, indestructible, illuminating, incorruptible, and inconspicuous.
  • The 10 shortest words describing the best CEOs: idyllic, intrepid, incisive, intense, ideal, iconic, igniter, inviter, inspired, and integral.
  • The 10 longest words describing the worst CEOs: incomprehensible, indistinguishable, inconsequential, idiosyncratic, ignominious, indiscriminate, irresponsible, indescribable, inefficacious, indeterminate, and individualistic.
  • The 10 shortest words describing the worst CEOs: icy, icky, iffy, intent, idle, inept, irate, iconic, itchy, and insipid. To summarize the results of this exercise, I would say that CEOs rank somewhere below "iffy" and just above "icky" on the VIP "I-Word" chart.
    * * *
    Perhaps all of the imperfect CEOs out there could take a lesson from a German poet born a few centuries ago. My relative inferiority has left me with a genuine awe of genius. It was no surprise, therefore, that while rummaging through my collection of idea junk, I found a cherished scrap of paper upon which I had jotted the names of male geniuses and someone's anonymous estimate of their IQ scores. The elite included Ben Franklin, 160; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 165; Immanuel Kant and Julius Caesar, 175; Ren Descartes, 180; and Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci, 185. The valedictorian? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with a score of 210. With a name like Marino and the likes of Caesar, Galileo, and da Vinci to choose from, I was surprised that Goethe topped the list. But Goethe (1749-1832) followers would point out that he was one of the greatest literary geniuses the world has ever known. Goethe, the poet, would have made a magnificent chief executive for a university like Harvard or Princeton. Goethe, the scientist, would have made a magnificent chief executive for a manufacturing company like General Electric Co. or Microsoft Corp. Goethe, the man, would have made a magnificent chief executive for any company. Goethe's teachings are as applicable today as when he taught. His autobiography, From My Life, is the classic that solidified his reputation as the world's unsurpassed poet. He wrote some of the most beautiful poems ever written. He also taught great thoughts:
  • Art is long, life is short, judgment is difficult, opportunity transient.
  • To act is easy, to think is hard.
  • Excellence is rarely found, more rarely valued. Goethe reminded us that peaks charm us, but the climb to the top does not. With the summit in sight, we too often choose to walk along the plain.


    Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., author of the recently published Management Rhymes and Reason, and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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