Brazen and Bold, or Understated but Effective: How Do You Like Your CEOs?

Leadership styles among CEOs are becoming increasingly divergent. A new breed of high-profile, fast-talking, even brash business leaders seems to be eclipsing generations of the traditional buttoned-down breed of C-suite denizens who made and executed decisions in an understated way.

And they don’t come any more brazen than the business CEO who could become America’s next “CEO,” Donald Trump.

“Today’s business climate can produce leaders who succeed with just about any personality.”

So what type of chief makes the most effective leader: the bold, even brutal personality or a well-mannered CEO who follows the rules of decorum?

The facts argue that both types can be effective and that, actually, today’s business climate can produce leaders who succeed with just about any personality.

Take the Italian wing of global CEOs who are making an impact on business in America and worldwide.

There’s no more plainspoken chief than Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler, the be-sweatered auto chieftain who can be counted on to shoot straight in the boardroom and behind microphones. He has been telling the CEOs of big competitors and anyone else who would listen that auto companies must consolidate, and Marchionne—continually—has offered his company as a merger candidate, even to the consternation of employees who wonder how such a deal might affect them.

More recently, Marchionne took over as CEO of Ferrari as well. And while other luxury competitors are adding SUVs to their traditional fleets of sedans, because that’s where even the well-heeled market is moving, the frank chief said Ferrari won’t be doing likewise. “You have to shoot me first,” he said.

Another CEO with underpinnings in Italy, Lands’ End CEO Federica Marchionni has been shaking things up at one of the original successful catalog-apparel retailers by bringing her continental brand of style to the tradition-minded home of chinos and boat shoes.

So far, Marchionni has lots of internal admirers, but also has made lots of enemies at the company by, for instance, insisting on being located in New York City instead of out in the relative hustings at Lands’ End headquarters in Dodgeville, Wis. One year into her tenure, the former Dolce & Gabbana marketing executive has yet to impress investors by turning around Lands’ End’s financial performance.

“I have strong opinions, yes, I do,” she said recently. “Because I know this business. I know this market.” Also, Marchionni admitted to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I am a ruler, yes I am. But I am doing in a peaceful way. I want everybody in the end to feel enriched by the things I’m giving them.”

Elon Musk is another brash CEO who polarizes both the constituencies of his companies, including Tesla and SpaceX, as well as outsiders. But so far, overall, there’s little arguing with his success or his style.

A few years ago, as he was bringing out the $70,000-and-up Tesla Model S, which has been turning the auto world upside down, Musk famously and at length tangled in a public exchange with a New York Times reviewer who noted that the test car ran out of power in the cold.

Also, Tesla has never made a major deadline for launching its highly regarded vehicles. Yet Musk recently promised the world that somehow the company—after just letting go its top two manufacturing executives—would move up its production deadline for the new Model 3 mainstream-priced electric vehicle by two years. Investors responded by sending down the stock.

Then on the next day, May 6, Musk wildly celebrated the successful landing of a SpaceX rocket stage on a ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean after the mother vehicle blasted off from Cape Canaveral with a Japanese communications satellite. “Woo hoo!” Musk tweeted.

Meanwhile, there’s no more in-your-face CEO than Jim Koch, Boston Beer Co. founder. It doesn’t get much more brash than a rule he instituted that a spokesman said “is practically carved in stone” at the pioneering craft brewer: Anyone in the company has the right to go up to anyone else in the company, including Koch, and say, “F— you”—as long as they explain why they’re doing it, and listen to feedback.

“Jim finds it keeps a lot of resentments from boiling over,” the spokesman told Chief Executive, “while bringing people closer together.”

On the other hand, argued Richard Coughlan, an associate professor of management at the University of Richmond, brash CEOs can “have difficulty building successful organizations over an extended period” in part “because they say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.”

As an alternative successful CEO, Coughlan offered as an example Tom Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour for professional golf. “There is a reason he has been so successful over a couple of decades,” Coughlan said. “His decision-making is measured and so is his communication style.”

SAS CEO Jim Goodnight is another such leader, the professor said: “a quiet leader who has had incredible success. His 40-year run at the helm of the software firm he founded is remarkable in that the company has enjoyed very consistent financial results while also being recognized as one of the best workplaces anywhere.”

Clearly, CEOs can succeed with any management style. The question is, for how long. It’s probably the substance they express that counts most.


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