Emperors With No Clothes


Drip, drip, drip. Strip, strip, strip.

One by one. Apparently inexorably. In increasingly large numbers, the titans of capitalism, the masters of the universe, the emperors of corporate America are being stripped of their royal robes.  Left to stand naked – embarrassed and exposed like mere mortals.

This was foretold by a few, though not by many. See my own book, The End of Leadership (2012), and Mois Naim’s The End of Power (2013). We both foresaw that leaders in the 21st century – leaders everywhere, leaders of every stripe – were going to experience hard times because others (e.g. followers, stakeholders, constituents) were gaining on them. Now the leader’s time of trouble is here – unless he (or, rarely, she) is an autocrat, in which case he squashes like a bug those who would squash him.

Most corporate commanders are unable any longer completely to control their troops . Their titles no longer protect against assault or attack. Their positions no longer are vaulted or impermeable. They status no longer is high or mighty. And their opponents no longer are awed or cowed.  In other words, as the New York Times’s Nelson Schwartz put it, “the baronial C.E.O is in decline.”* He is being stripped of his trappings.

Several years ago, I posted a blog titled, “Top Ten List – Why the Decline of the CEO.” I gave ten reasons why corporate leaders were prey to conditions over which they had “little or no control.”

  • Large activist investors.
  • Small aggressive investors.
  • Bossy boards.
  • Split Governance.
  • Long arm of the law.
  • Social media.
  • Aggressive public scrutiny.
  • Invasive flattened hierarchy.
  • Volatility, uncertainly, complexity, and ambiguity.
  • Altered ideology.

Now the drumbeat is faster and louder. Now it’s obvious to anyone paying any attention that corporate leaders are like political leaders – deeply vulnerable to the temper of the times and to opponents hellbent on dethroning them. “General Electric,” writes Schwartz, “is just the latest storied name in corporate America to show its leader the door. Ford’s chief executive, Mark Fields, had been in the job for less than three years when he was fired in late May. Two weeks earlier, Mario Longhi of U.S. Steel abruptly stepped down.” Nor are newer companies, relative upstarts, immune from the trend. Two weeks ago, the brains behind Uber, Travis Kalanick, was forced to resign; several months earlier Marissa Mayer, who for years had been dangling, was finally formally severed from Yahoo.

The diminishment of leaders inevitably raises or it should, these questions. What are the implications for the leadership industry? And how should it adjust to a time when leaders are significantly less elevated than they used to be?  I will provide some responses to these questions in my next post.


*Nelson Schwartz, “Decline of the Baronial CEO,” June 18, 2017.



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