Business Management

Rant: The Absurd Cult of the Tech CEO

This news just in: Christian Bale won’t play Steve Jobs in forthcoming Hollywood biopic but Seth Rogen may play Steve Wozniak; Tim Cook announces he is gay; Mark Zuckerberg gives interview in fluent Mandarin; Marc Benioff on fixing San Francisco; Meg Whitman to found colony on Planet Zog.

OK, not all of these are true but the media fascination with technology leaders has gone a bit too far. The CEO has become a cult figure for no greater reason than human beings appear to need a figurehead, an iconic presence who can explain everything, be the fount of all wisdom, a storyteller, visionary and seer.

It’s a dangerous obsession in more ways than one and in technology it’s bound up in the sector’s ability to create fast-growth companies that go from light-bulb idea to billion-dollar valuation in under three years. For that rate of progress the VCs and analysts want a narrative arc of the kind you might find in any movie, charting a story from rags to riches with lots of colour, a little pull on the heartstrings, plenty of signposting for the hard of thinking and a happy ending.

To fit the bill, the photofit CEO should be energetic, persuasive, personable and confident – a Jay Gatsby without the troubling legacy. It does help if there’s a nice back story for human interest purposes. That’s why you see that a good many CEOs are fitness fanatics, fly planes, own sports teams and so on. And it’s rare to meet a CEO who doesn’t have a favoured charity. They’re regular guys and gals that we can aspire to becoming… they just have a few more billions of dollars than us.

The rewards for the tech CEO are very high indeed. The shtick is to earn a tiny salary, and maybe even forego that in tough times, but the stock options are through the roof and the payoffs for success (and even failure) will make the man on the street’s eyeballs sweat. That’s why we get the cult: these people are paid to show the way and take the heat. And the hotter they become the more we take an interest in them.

Are they worth it? Maybe, at least for as long as they generate a return on investment for shareholders and others, but those runs don’t last forever and yesterday’s promises of jam tomorrow will eventually be called in. And guess what, these CEOs look the same as you and me in the bath; they’re not superhuman and the weight of expectation can be a heavy burden, especially on the public markets where watchers expect good news on a quarterly basis. So, guess what, they make mistakes and sometimes the veneer protecting the perfect CEO portrait gets scuffed.

It might be that there’s a reaction against the CEO, the Superman/Superwoman who has it all: perfect patter, perfect suit, perfect kids, perfect teeth. Some of the new CEOs are notably low-key, self-effacing and able even to laugh at themselves: think of Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Zach Nelson at NetSuite, Sohaib Abbasi at Informatica.

Thousands of years ago, Man worshipped rocks, asked questions of the Delphic Oracle before the Larry Ellison version. It may be that there’s a new Enlightenment coming where we look at a CEO’s ability to manage and delegate in companies with strong financials, good funding and sensible long-term plans. In a sane business economy we shouldn’t worship false gods or proclaim our acquiescence to tribal leaders – the Cult of the CEO should be extinct.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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