Forbes editor Matt Miller envisions the post-crisis CEO.
Question: Will the financial crisis change the way leaders behave?
Miller: I guess… I think one of the biggest problems we face now is that business leaders who I think are our critical constituency for a lot of the things that need to happen, business leaders of global enterprises have less of a stake in the quality of public policy in the United States than they used to. What do I mean by that? If you’re running a multinational firm and half your sales are outside the United States today, and in the next five years most of your growth is coming from outside the United States, if the US education system is failing, it may be a pity for your country, but it may not be a big problem for your business, and if we’re honest about that, and I think most business leaders don’t like to conceptualize it in those terms, but if we have an honest conversation about that as a country, it helps explain why, you know, business leaders today will say, well, you know, if the Kentucky school system isn’t good, I can hire the engineers and site the manufacturing place I need in Singapore. And that changes the conversation, and I think what we need, and one of the things I urge in my book, is really a resurgence of what I think of as patriotic US based business leaders who can step outside some of their traditional incentives or the polls that they fill now globally to say time out, you know. As Americans, we need to get our house in order, and we need to do what we need to, and I’m prepared, as a business and with other business leaders, to step up and be a constituent for the changes that we need to make so that all Americans have a chance to thrive. I think, you know, unless we have business leaders actually take greater ownership of some of these public issues, then we’re going to have a hard time solving them. So, I’m hopeful on the sense that I think that, once appealed to, business leaders can actually step up in this way, because they had before. After World War II, the martial plan, the whole economic recovery, business leaders played an enormous part in that in the US, but I think they haven’t been summoned really to step up in a way that they need to, and I think, if they are, I’m hopeful they’ll answer the call.
Question: Do CEO’s need to rebrand themselves less as leaders and more as icons?
Miller: I’m not sure if I’m thinking of it so much in the sense of the superstar CEO and, you know, the brand of the company, though that’s, you know, in the media age, that seems to be, you know, a trend that continues, but I think we’re going to need, we’re certainly going to need a good list of name brand CEOs, people who are known to the public and who have clout, to step up on some of these public issues, to help say, you know, business wants to solve this, and right now business ends up, business approaches all its issues as if they were an [asylum]. There’s the trade issue. We want free trade or we want protectionism, depending on the business you’ve got. There’s taxes and we deal with that. There’s, you know, different state level issues, etc. I think what business, what too many CEOs don’t understand is that all these things meld together now in an era when ordinary Americans feel tremendous anxiety about their economic future, and unless business as a constituency views these issues in an integrated way and realizes that business needs to be an advocate for changes in the social contract that we’re talking about, then the consensus for markets and capitalism, etc., is going to erode and there’ll be a real backlash against the values that most business leaders care about.