Viewpoint -- Can CEOs Be Heroes?

Dec. 21, 2004
They might not save lives, but executives can still make a difference.

The events of Sept. 11 helped our nation recognize the true meaning of the word "hero."

For the first time in recent memory, athletes like Barry Bonds and celebrities like Julia Roberts rightfully took a back seat to everyday men and women who put their own lives on the line to help others. Bonds and Roberts, along with a lengthy list of other admired personalities in this country, are cultural icons -- not heroes. Heroes are the people who saved lives in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, people who risked their own well being and made personal sacrifices for the sake of others.

What about business leaders? Can CEOs be heroes? After all, senior executives make a lot of sacrifices in both their professional and personal lives. They take the heat when their companies fail to perform. Executives' decisions have the potential to impact every single stakeholder in their companies, from employees and customers to investors and the local community. So when a CEO does something positive and out of the ordinary, and his actions make a significant difference in stakeholders' lives, is he a hero?

For example, is Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, a hero? The attacks on the World Trade Center claimed the lives of nearly 700 Cantor employees. Since that time Lutnick announced that the company will pay 25% of its profits for the next five years to victims' families. Lutnick himself contributed $1 million to establish the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund. Are his actions heroic?

What about Ted Turner? In 1997 the founder of CNN and current vice chairman of AOL Time Warner pledged $1 billion to the United Nations. This money will be used to aid refugees and fight diseases. Could Turner's commitment be considered a heroic deed?

First we should define what a hero is. Joseph Campbell, author of "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", wrote that a hero "is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself." Following Campbell's logic, we can define a hero as someone who denies him or herself and makes personal sacrifices for the greater good of society.

For example, firefighters and rescue workers put their lives on the line daily for a cause that is bigger than them -- the safety of their communities. While I think the actions of both Lutnick and Turner are commendable, I do not believe they are heroes. Both men have used their positions as senior executives and public figures to benefit humanity. But neither man made anything more than a monetary gift or a pledge of support. They made contributions, not sacrifices. An admirable person supports a cause, but a true hero puts everything on the line for that cause.

I believe they are few and far between, but heroic senior executives do exist. Ivan Winfield is an example of a business leader who put his own neck on the line for a greater good. Winfield, a trustee of the former Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Ohio, made a very unpopular choice during a mid-1990s takeover attempt by national health-care giant Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. The proposed $300 million transaction included hefty "enhanced retirement payments" to the top three officers of Blue Cross. More than $19 million in payoffs were built into the deal, with up to $1 million in payments set aside for each trustee -- including Winfield. Winfield did not think the transaction was fair to Blue Cross stakeholders. If the deal went through, large amounts of policyholders' money would disappear into the pockets of Blue Cross executives. But he also knew that if he interfered with the transaction, he would be putting his professional career on the line and risk having a lawsuit filed against him by Blue Cross' attorneys.

Despite the overwhelming pressure from Blue Cross, and despite the $1 million personal benefit he would have enjoyed if the deal were approved, Winfield opted to go against the grain. He resigned from Blue Cross' board, and then tried to block the deal by bringing media attention to the $19 million payoffs. After a probe by the Ohio Attorney General, the proposed sale fell apart. Several Blue Cross executives were sued by policyholders. And Winfield received national media coverage for his whistle-blowing.

Winfield is a business leader who demonstrated heroic qualities under intense pressure. He stood to gain a large sum of money if he would have kept his mouth shut, but he refused. Instead of rubber-stamping the transaction, Winfield accepted the challenge and decided to crusade for what he felt was right. He made personal sacrifices -- putting his own professional career and reputation on the line -- to tackle an issue that was bigger than him.

Winfield's actions show how a senior executive can be a hero. His battle against the Columbia/Blue Cross sale might not have been physically dangerous like the challenge faced by rescue workers on Sept. 11. Winfield may not have saved lives by taking a stand against a health-care titan. But the personal risks he took by fighting such a big business deal were scary in their own right.

Being a hero means taking a stand, accepting a challenge and being willing to give up something of great value -- your reputation, your financial stability or possibly your life itself -- in support of a cause. People like Ivan Winfield have proven that executives can be heroes. If you ever get the call, are you prepared to put everything on the line in support of a greater good? If so, you too could be a hero.

Michael Madej is IW's new media marketing manager. He is based in Cleveland.

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