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Culture Change

CEO Popularity

Chris Harrison

July 4, 2024

It’s a truth widely acknowledged that business leadership is not a popularity contest. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time; setting a direction when others are uncertain. Business leaders are not politicians, chasing the popularity of the soundbite. They tend to be held to account by boards of directors. Increasingly, in the modern interconnected world, their actions are the subject of a more public debate fuelled by customers and even employees. Whether you like it or not, this is drawing the worlds of politics and business closer together in terms of what is expected of leaders.

Just before Christmas of 2022, Elon Musk ran a Twitter poll asking if he should resign as Chief Executive of that social media network. 17.5 million people voted and suggested he should by 57.5% to 42.5 %. Very few business leaders would follow Musk’s example. But, if they did, I wonder how many would survive a popular poll?

Many such polls seem to exist already if you choose to Google them. But most reflect ratings given by fellow CEOs, business-related media and business school academics. A kind of mutual appreciation society, where the people giving or endorsing the ratings gain as much kudos as the subjects of their admiration.

Glassdoor, the employee review site, produces an annual CEO ranking. The votes come from employees, allegedly.  But ‘winning’ CEOs seem to poll at around 99% approval so one might conclude that Putinesque manipulation is taking place.

Most successful CEOs aren’t well-known to the general public. Shareholders and competitors have more accurate and relevant opinions. One or two CEOs become infamous for spilling oil on US beaches, abusing accountants on Zoom calls or seducing juniors.  Others for making it clear that they don’t care what anyone thinks about them (a sure-fire way of attracting opprobrium). And many more because they can’t sustain their relevance: Mark Zuckerberg of Meta is now disliked by more than 40% of the public worldwide.

But it seems inevitable that even solid, unshowy business leaders will become fodder for public comment in the coming years. So what might they do to prevent this from becoming an obstacle to their continued success? How, indeed, might they avoid being ‘cancelled’?’

Future leaders will still need to make the right calls, nurture the best ideas to fruition and promote their best people to succeed them. But increasingly they will be expected to show more empathy (by identifying with others) than ego. To demonstrate the values that they espouse in their daily actions, not just their words.  

In modern business, true leadership is a mindset rather than a position.