Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How many CEOs can you name?

Steve Jobs's recent death, and the outpouring of love it has engendered, set me thinking about the Great Man theory of history.

I confess I am not an iPerson. CorporateHistory.net runs on PCs and software from Microsoft and Adobe. My smartphone is a Droid. And what I read of Jobs's managerial style made me cringe. Yes, eulogies are supposed to look beyond such things. I'm not here to eulogize, just to think out loud.

To qualify as a Great Man, it seems to me, a person should also be a great man without the caps. How does Jobs score there? On the invention front, shouldn't we also pause to remember with gratitude Martin Cooper, the father of the cell phone? He led the Motorola team that invented the concept a generation ago. Even though the early models weighed a cool 4 pounds, without them we wouldn't have smartphones.

Yet who recalls Martin Cooper's name? Following that train of thought, how many contemporary CEOs can you name? Mark Zuckerberg is easy. So is Lloyd Blankfein, if you read the business news. But how about IBM's CEO--the current one, not the woman who is soon to take over? Or the CEOs of the 2011 Fortune Top 5: Wal-Mart Stores, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Fannie Mae? I'm in the business of business history, and I'd flunk the test. All in all, I have to wonder if the Great Man theory is in large part a cult of personality.

And as for whether SIRI stands for "Steve is really inside," I'd rather have LIRI, with the L standing for Louis Armstrong. Now there was a Great, great man.