When A CEO’s Private Affairs Go Public

Jeff Bezos
Credit: Amazon

The apparent threats by American Media/National Enquirer to humiliate Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos have sent shock waves around the world—especially since Bezos retaliated to AMI’s threat by revealing the documented blackmail of a wave of publications of added embarrassing but purloined private amorous exchanges.

I have known Bezos for many years, not well—sadly by his choice. Bezos is an intensely private person despite being the public face of Amazon. I have invited him to join us at Yale events for twenty years and gotten nice replies of regret. He routinely declines awards and media opportunities. I believe he has not appeared on CNBC since he was teased from three hours straight as a co-host in 2001!

I have been seated with him at events, such as Bill Gates’ Microsoft CEO programs where I was hired as a facilitator. He’d sit in the back of room where I would hide when not on stage.

We do not want to blame the victim, but this does show a recklessness on the part of public company CEO. Were this American Apparel’s vulgar Dov Charney, Uber’s Travis Kalanick’s toxic culture, or Tesla’s Elon Musk’s erratic and misleading tweets, the board would come under more pressure to confront the “below-the-belt” selfies and other unfortunate revelations.

But Bezos is getting a pass, not because he is the world’s wealthiest person or because he is a technology pioneer and retail genius. Moreover, he’s not getting a pass because of any prevalent anti-Trump sentiment in the media, let alone his own affiliation as a media baron.

Instead, it’s because the typically private Bezos was candid and open in his response. He is the personification of Amazon. His name is hyphenated with the brand Amazon. This is a significant distraction for management and mild weakening of the company’s brand, but not a material weakening of the company’s brand.

Such indiscreet behavior, even though there was no intended public distribution of this private exchange, suggests an area of character weakness. However, all institutions—from churches and schools and governments and companies—are filled with human beings as leaders who all have human frailties.  They make missteps and should be primarily judged on how they respond. Bezos responded well.

Furthermore, intimate exchanges between non-company parties and a CEO are no one’s business if they do not abuse company personnel, resources on or violate conduct on the job.

Boards need to rally around a CEO being targeted by malicious actors with commercial or political motives to shake them down…if the target CEOs conduct on the job is still effective, moral, and responsible. The board should also be working plans. While the Amazon board is not protecting a villain like the old CBS board did for Les Moonves or the old Wynn Resorts board.

At the same time, this is a timely warning shot over the bow that the Amazon needs to have a backup leadership succession plan. Who is the Andy Grove to this brilliant Gordon Moore or Robert Noyce? Who is the Tim Cook to this brilliant Steve Jobs?

Read more: In Times Of Crisis, The CEO Becomes Chief Emergency Officer