Sonnenfeld: Tillerson Ouster Rumors No Surprise

Tillerson
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Rumors are swirling that the Trump administration is looking to replace Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO and chairman Rex Tillerson after less than a year on the job, though the news comes as no surprise to those who felt Tillerson was ill-suited for the job from the outset.

“Tillerson was way over his head in every dimension stepping into the position,” senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told Chief Executive. “He also had no relationship with Trump beforehand.”

The secretary’s relationship with President Trump has been rocky one thus far, with reports that Tillerson called the president a “moron” during a meeting in October making headlines, and Trump calling Tillerson out on Twitter over negotiations with North Korea. Now rumors that the president will replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo are gaining steam.

“Tillerson was way over his head in every dimension stepping into the position.” – Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

Trump’s disagreements with Tillerson may be tied to the president’s disappointment in his loyalty and lackluster ties to the business community.

“[Tillerson’s] only real credential was his personal warmth, which is considerable, his large handshake and his relationship with seven oil-producing nations—especially Russia,” Sonnenfeld says. “I think Trump wanted to leverage that, and to Tillerson’s credit he was taking a relatively independent-minded position on Russia, instead of becoming part of the chorus. That didn’t go down well.”

Tillerson also wasn’t bringing in many relationships from the business community to rally around Trump, according to Sonnenfeld, so Trump had to rely on others to develop those ties.

“[Trump] mistakenly thought that there would be a blind loyalty on Russia and a strong, charismatic following behind this really tall guy with a resonant voice and a big handshake, but it was a classic case of ‘big hat, no cattle.’ He wasn’t able to deliver on that front,” Sonnenfeld says.

If Tillerson is shown the door in the coming weeks or months, a return to the business world wouldn’t be out of the question, with board positions the most likely destination. His ties to the Trump administration, however, may make things more difficult for him, regardless of politics.

“He’s going to be a polarizing figure,” Sonnenfeld says. “He will now have detractors on both sides for being either complicit or disloyal to this administration.”

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Patrick Gorman

Patrick Gorman is managing editor at Chief Executive magazine, based in Stamford, CT. His business journalism background includes 12 years covering the C-level marketing and technology spaces.