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.
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.
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.