By Alan Glynn
It is in the natural order of things that CEOs should be dull and uninteresting. It’s their job to be this way. They’re hired to run companies, to generate positive quarterly reports and to increase shareholder profit. They wear suits and are usually middle-aged . . . as well as white, and balding, and often overweight. And they play golf. It’s an image that’s been around since at least the 1950s, and it fits, it makes sense, because CEOs are managers, beancounters, fumblers in a greasy till – albeit a till writ so large that it now almost fills the entire world.
But how is it then that in books and movies, these grey “organization” men can occasionally make such convincing and compelling bad guys? Because when we think of the classic villains of page and screen, the first thing that often jumps out at us is the distinguishing physical feature – from Richard the Third’s hunchback to Long John Silver’s pegleg, from Snidely Whiplash’s twirling mustache to Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s hideous facial scar (I’m thinking Donald Pleasance here). And the second thing that jumps out at us is probably force of personality, the dark magnetism of these characters, their need to manipulate and control. Conan Doyle’s Moriarity, for instance, had “hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers”. Serial killer Hannibal Lecter is cultured and irresistibly charming, but his commanding presence and intellectual prowess are suffocating and malignant. And then come the lurid appetites and proclivities. Even the word. Ordinary people have things they like doing. Villains have proclivities. Murder, pedophilia, cannibalism.
So how can the humble man in the grey flannel suit possibly compete with all of this? If conformity is a watchword of the corporate world, then green hair and a painted-on grin aren’t really going to fly, are they? Ditto steel hands, ditto tear ducts that leak blood. And there won’t much call, either, for strangling, or stabbing, or sucking the blood of virgins, or filching nuclear warheads. More comfortable in an office poring over a spreadsheet, or out on the fairway swinging a nine iron, the average CEO doesn’t come across as someone likely any time soon to start getting medieval on your ass.
And yet, and yet.
Recent books by Jon Ronson and Kevin Dutton have shown that this same average CEO is actually four times more likely to be a psychopath than the average working schmoe on his payroll. And the CEO doesn’t have to be an ax-wielding murderer to qualify. He just needs to display certain characteristics. First, a cheap, superficial charm, a sort of bargain-basement charisma that will draw people in. Next, behavior that is calculated and manipulative in the coldest possible way, lying without hesitation, say, or deliberately setting colleagues against one another. But perhaps the most crucial characteristic of all is a complete lack of human empathy, and quite literally so. This person doesn’t have any feelings – no compassion, no remorse, no guilt, nada. Of course, not all CEOs are like this, it’s only a small percentage, and even the ones that are can mostly hide it. They’re socialized and high-functioning. They’re productive. They’re successful. The agreed figure is actually four per cent, which is kind of disappointing. You’d like it to be a little higher. But still, it’ll do. Get twenty-five of these guys in a room and you’re guaranteed at least one textbook, triple-A psycho. That’s the current understanding, at any rate, and few would question it.
But this is a long way from the 1950s. That was when a lot of academic navel gazing was conducted about the state of American business. Social critics of the time felt that the spirit of capitalism was being bureaucratized, that the rugged individuals of a previous generation were no longer calling the shots. A gradual separation was underway of corporate ownership from corporate control, an effective redistribution, with ownership passing to the big shareholding pension funds and insurance companies, and control to the new “managerial class”. Writers such as David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), William H. Whyte (The Organization Man), C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite) and, in fiction, Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit) all described how the creeping contagion of conformity in the corporate system was choking individuality and innovation. In his book Company Man Anthony Sampson quotes a study of mid-century chief executives that found the typical boss was “a Republican Episcopalian aged sixty-one, expecting to retire at seventy. He owned less than 0.1 per cent of his company’s stock, and had never had a business of his own.” The pattern was set for at least the next two decades, with perhaps the most iconic representation of this stifling culture being the vast movie-set offices of Consolidated Life of New York in Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment. Things hadn’t got any better by the mid-1970s when Joseph Heller came along with his second novel, Something Happened. Here we have anxious insurance executive Bob Slocum who is afraid of five people in his office, each of whom is afraid of four people, each of whom, in turn, is afraid of six other people.
By the next decade, however, something had indeed happened. For so long, America’s largely staid, conservative CEOs had done their best to remain anonymous, in the shadows, more or less like venerable mafia dons. But then in the 1980s a new generation of corporate leaders took over, men who were soon emerging, John Gotti-like, into the carcinogenic sunlight of celebrity. Lee Iacocca at Chrysler and Jack Welch at GE weren’t just perceived – and, crucially, didn’t just perceive themselves – as business leaders. National leaders was closer to the mark, national saviours even. The other big shift that occurred around this time was that the bloated corpulence of middle management was hacked away and a new purpose in life was defined, a new mantra: maximize the company’s stock price.
At any price.
Now we’re talking.
So hello Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko. Hello Danny DeVito’s Larry the Liquidator. Hello the real world’s Albert J. Dunlap – “Chainsaw Al”, the man who canned 11,000 employees at Scott Paper, cut R&D, eliminated philanthropy, boosted the company’s stock price by a few hundred per cent, and in the process also found time to pose for a photo in which he brandished an automatic weapon and sported an ammunition belt. Hello, too, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers, and Enron’s dynamic duo, Jeff Skilling and Kenneth “Kenny Boy” Lay. The rest – or, to be more precise, the last twelve years – is history. And what happened in those twelve years is pretty astonishing.
The thing is, CEOs have always been employees (try and picture Ernst Stavro Blofeld negotiating a remuneration package), but it has only been in very recent times that managerial compensation has actually been tied to, and been determined by, managerial performance. This has shifted the dynamic in a significant way. By detaching the CEO from any kind of meaningful loyalty – to company, or product, or brand – it makes him (and yes, it’s still usually him) what Chrystia Freeland calls in her 2012 book Plutocrats, “the free-agent superstar of the pay-for-performance era”. In other words, these guys make prodigious amounts of money – well over a hundred times, on average, what the average worker makes – and they are driven by that single, monolithic force: the stock price. Hopped up on the metrics of the expectations market, they maraud over the globalized landscape like Mongol Warlords, taking decisions that effect, often adversely, the lives of millions.
So today’s top-tier CEO is really a world away from the conformist company man of the Eisenhower era. Still largely male, white, middle-aged and balding (overweight may have ceded to mindfully vegan), he is nevertheless a peculiarly modern creature, a vastly wealthy, socialized psychopath clothed in immense power – and if he isn’t actually a psychopath, if he doesn’t tick enough boxes on the official Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Joel Bakon, author of The Corporation, would argue that he works for one, in the undeniably psychopathic (though constitutionally protected) “person” of the corporation itself.
It seems clear to me that an interesting tension now exists between the perceived greyness of the CEO and the extraordinary extent of his influence, and that this can be a rich seam to mine for any fiction writer or filmmaker. In my own novels, I have been drawn repeatedly to the figure of the CEO and have had a lot of fun showing how these figures can end up in knots trying to rationalize obviously immoral behavior, but also how they can sometimes buckle under the strain and ultimately be destroyed by their power. And I think that’s the key here: power. The best bad guys in literature and cinema have all possessed varying degrees of the stuff – be they kings, generals, cardinals, tycoons, senators, presidents, or master criminals. But today, it’s the turn of the CEO, and what a modern business leader may lack in terms of glamour or nominal status (at least in some of its more traditional forms), he certainly makes up for in the range and depth and reach of his power. He may not wear a crown or an eye patch, he may not operate from a secret island lair, he may not have an army at his back (though private security firms do come in handy), but the reality is he doesn’t need any of these things, because never before in human history has there been such an awesomely powerful figure – one who can move across the globe without restriction, who can extract natural resources, exploit unprotected labour, evade taxes and regulations, one who can exert an influence over society that is greater and subtler than that of any elected or appointed official, or even of any badass military tyrant.
Naturally, this is at the top end of the scale, and CEOs, no matter how high up they get, can always be fired or kicked out by their boards. But we’re all human. And kings are killed, Mr Garrison. That hasn’t changed in the many thousands of years we’ve been doing this, and is unlikely to in the future. Call it standard operating procedure. So really, the takeaway message here is simple – don’t be fooled by the suit or the nine iron. That sober-looking man in the corner office over there is rich, powerful and probably a psycho. He’s the new bogey man and he’s coming to get you . . .