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Time for a New Trope

CNBC’s “Street Signs” asked me to appear on their program commenting on a Slate.com article, “The CEO Real Estate Scam,” …

CNBC’s “Street Signs” asked me to appear on their program commenting on a Slate.com article, “The CEO Real Estate Scam,” in which the author, Michelle Leder, expressed outrage that some companies were offering their CEOs “loss protection” and “price protection” based on the value of their homes.

Anchor Erin Burnett, who is also CNBC’s co anchor of “Squawk on the Street,” led off by playing to Leder’s outrage that CEOs-who can afford it-are given a perk that the average person who is being hurt by falling house prices cannot also enjoy. Leder was indeed infuriated and said so several times. When my turn came I was asked the typical when-have-you-stopped-beating-your wife question. “Don’t you find it infuriating, etc?”

I replied that while many perks are open to abuse, not all perquisites are created equal. When attracting a CEO from another company it often makes sense to offer packages that take care of various benefits he or she might otherwise be forced to forego. Indeed, house protection would be cheap as perks go. It hardly rises to the level of Dennis Kozlowski’s toga parties or the notorious $6,000 shower curtains, not to mention the use of company jets, Knicks courtside season tickets or daily fresh cut flowers for his New York apartment bestowed upon Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, parent company of CNBC. (Welch gave up these perks after embarrassing media headlines made them untenable.)

In the wake of the corporate scandals, CEOs will continue to be fair game. And as a group they are certainly not slow to provide the class warriors with plenty of ammunition. But what really caught my attention was the on-screen graphic CNBC used: “CEO as King,” showing a self-satisfied executive type wearing a coronet.

Given that median tenure for CEOs in the S&P 500 has dropped to an all time low of five years, according to recruiters Spencer Stuart, there is perhaps no other image more out-of-date than the notion of the imperial CEO.

It’s time for a new trope. Last issue we promised to bring to your attention chiefs who are more indicative of where leadership is going. These are people who see the landscape ahead differently and are willing to forge a new way of doing things even if this represents a break with the past-a past in which they were very much a key actor. Our cover story on Textron’s Lewis Campbell illustrates why and how CEOs need to reinvent themselves if they hope to transform their organizations. Times have changed. So have CEOs.

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.