By Selene Alcock

“On Wall Street he and a few others – how many? – three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? – had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe.”
Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

Household name and Co-Founder of Apple, Steve Jobs is synonymous with success, leadership, and vision. Some cite him as the greatest CEO of all time. He championed out-of-the-box thinking. He inspired generations and revolutionized the world with everything ‘I’.

But others saw a darker side: the control freak, the manipulator. Mike Slade, Strategic Advisor to Jobs from 1998 to 2004, said of him, “If you’re not a genius, don’t try to imitate Steve. You’ll just end up acting like an asshole.”

Confident business people standing together

In the corporate world, we hear countless stories of the world’s leading CEOs who walk a fine line between genius and asshole-ism. Their consumers—the people that ensure they get and stay super-rich—are more likely to revere them as rock stars or demigods than to admonish their bouts of bad behavior.

So, what makes these modern ‘Masters of the Universe’ tick? Are there any gentleman or gentlewomen leaders left in the boardroom, or are they just a bunch of narcissistic megalomaniacs or, at best, benevolent dictators?

In an attempt to understand the mindset of these modern moguls, you need to ask the question: has free-market capitalism and the astronomic rise of multinational corporations in the 21st century become a breeding ground for a corporate cult of personality; has the startup trend spawned a wave of soft cultism; where does charisma spill over into psychopathy; and, will Elon Musk go down in history as the first-ever intergalactic CEO to rule an entire planet?

Of course, not all CEOs are bad or power-crazed. And this article is in no way intended to be a CEO bashing exercise; it aims to take a deep dive into the psyche of your average S&P or Fortune 500 CEO. Globally, Chief Executive Officers are generally hard-working, dedicated executives who must lead and excel under immense pressure. They work hard to get there. As well as the vision they hold and must execute for their company’s future, they are answerable to their boards and shareholders who demand more and more profits.

With the capitalist model of ‘profits before people’, however, consumers often have a skewed and conflicted view of corporate leaders, big companies and MNCs have typically acted without regard for their stakeholders at large—customers, suppliers, employees, local communities and the environment.

In the 2003 documentary film, The Corporation, filmmaker Michael Moore says, “I believe the mistake that a lot of people make when they think about corporations, is they think, you know, corporations are like us. They think they have feelings, they have politics, they have belief systems, they really only have one thing, the bottom line — how to make as much money as they can in any given quarter.”

Once upon a time, there was the ‘businessman’. The term alone endears itself to humility. But as we have emerged out of 20th-century capitalism and into the global free-market economy of the 21st century, the humble businessman and his company have become somewhat passé. The new world requires a more dynamic businessperson: that of the pioneer, the innovator, or the entrepreneur. Crowning all of these is the entrepreneur-turned-CEO.

Forbes Coaches Council says in If You Want To Be ‘CEO Material’, you need everything from passion, vision, grit, decisiveness, backbone, courage and self-confidence to heart, vulnerability, curiosity, no ego, connection with culture, emotional intelligence, finely tuned intuition, relationship-building skills, and a growth mindset. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

According to New York Times research, you’re more likely to reach the top of an organization if you’ve had a variety of roles, from finance to marketing.

In How to Become a CEO? The Quickest Path Is a Winding One, writer Neil Irwin says, “Success in the business world isn’t just about brainpower or climbing a linear path to the top, but about accumulating diverse skills and showing an ability to learn about fields outside one’s comfort zone.”

Typically, CEOs take risks. What sets top executives apart from everyone else is audacity. In fact, 45% of top executives will undertake changes that others would describe as difficult, compared to 27% among frontline employees. In the average company, the CEO is 66% more likely to want audacious change than the employees.

Theories abound on what makes a great CEO or leader. In Carol Dweck’s recent book, Mindset, she says, “People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything. People with the growth mindset, however, believe something very different. For them, even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements.”

Malcolm Gladwell also put forward this idea in his 2008 book, Outliers. His 10,000-hour rule claims, “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” He adds, “People at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” Although the 10,000-hour rule is more applicable to the mastery of a specific skill, the main premise of Gladwell’s book is that “we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing.”

The book studies what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’. “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

But is the rise to the top that straightforward? In 5 Signs You’re CEO Material, Jessica Stillman from says, “no amount of training will prepare you for the role of CEO.” Instead, you need these five character fundamentals: curiosity and the willingness to learn, being the ‘dumbest person in the room’, you feel the fear but follow your dreams anyhow, you get obsessed, and you can tell a captivating story. These don’t sound like your typical Harvard Business School takeaways. They more closely resemble the profile of someone displaying narcissistic tendencies.

Perhaps the meteoric rise of the 21st-century CEO—and their ego—can be understood as proportionate to their colossal pay packages. In 2020, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimated CEO compensation had grown 1,322% since 1978, while typical worker compensation had risen just 18%.

CEOs are now are making 351 times that of a typical worker. Back in 1978, it was only 31 times. Roughly 300 companies in the S&P 500 reported their CEO compensation for 2020. The average CEO pay increased 15% to $14.5 million from the $12.6 million paid by these same companies to their CEOs in 2019. The 10 top-paid CEOs were paid a total of $598.7 million or an average of $59.9 million apiece.

But you don’t see investors complaining. They, too, got $691 billion richer from these 10 top-paying companies’ shares in 2020. It’s no surprise to learn that 74% of Americans believe that CEOs are grossly overpaid (2016 Public Perception Survey on CEO Compensation). Crucial in understanding this is recognizing that the bulk of a CEO’s compensation is contingent on performance, with stock-related compensation comprising around 85%. For the investors and shareholders who make huge profits, this lofty pay package is merely a drop in the ocean.

The rewards don’t stop there. In exchange for their empire-building acumen, these ‘Masters of the Universe’ are also privy to special perks such as the use of the corporate jet.

Public records from 2021 indicate that at least 95% of Fortune 100 businesses used corporate jets with at least 323 aircraft registered publicly to these companies. Moreover, a CEO’s authorized ‘trips’ could be trips taken purely for business entertainment, such as a CEO taking clients to a golf tournament, or an executive commuting to and from work. In 2020, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, received the largest aircraft perk value awarded to any executive—$1.8 million.

However, “Unlike professional athletes and rock stars,” says Richie Zweigenhaftin, “Fortune 500 CEOs oversee corporations that provide jobs for many thousands of employees and they and their companies have a major impact on the U.S. economy. The CEOs, therefore, unlike the athletes and the rock stars, are part of the power elite.”

Just as Stalin and Mao Tse Tung personified the cult of personality in 20th-century politics, today’s Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks embody an increasing, and perhaps even more sinister, corporate cult of personality.

Traditionally, propaganda and mass media were the means to mold the image of a public figure into a heroic and idealized form, to foster unconditional allegiance from their followers.

The religious overtones are no coincidence. In the US, just as the Church is a nonprofit religious corporation, MNCs and their fledgling counterpart—the startup—are like the new religion. As consumers, we are willing devotees. More than ever, we follow brands, influencers, startup entrepreneurs, and our hero CEOs. We hang off their every tweet and offer them our undying consumer allegiance. We all love to hate Jeff Bezos and Amazon, yet we fanatically buy from them.

In her article, Are Successful Companies The New Cults?, J. Maureen Henderson discusses the modern American corporation as if she were describing Scientology. Stories abound of corporate cult-ure, from Kraft’s refusal to let employees eat rival companies’ food products for lunch to Facebook and Apple offering to pay for egg freezing for female employees so that they could delay childbearing in favor of a career.

There has been much damning press about Amazon’s workplace culture. In a New York Times article, a former executive described Amazon as “the greatest place I hate to work.

Yet Jeff Bezos himself says of his leadership style, “All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition, guts… not analysis.” Believe him or not, he’s the world’s richest man.

Possessing tremendous charisma and a belief that they are connected to a higher power, cult leaders attract and keep followers by making them feel loved and accepted. Word on the streets is that the secret to a great startup is to run it like a cult. Yes, a cult.

In his book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel says, “You should run your startup like a cult,” including employing members who “are excited to wear your logo on their hoodies.” With the premise that “No company has a culture; every company is a culture,” he suggests that everyone in the company should be different in the same way but be “a tribe of likeminded people fiercely devoted to the company’s mission. The general perception is that cult leaders are either extreme narcissists and/or psychopaths, but less talked about is the rate of psychopathy among CEOs. Results vary, but estimates say that anywhere between 4% and 21% of CEOs are psychopaths. It’s probably at least 15%, a rate matched only by prison inmates, compared to the 1% rate found in the general population.

In the article, The Psychopathic CEO in Forbes Magazine, writer Jack McCullough says, “when it comes to the corporate world, non-violent, corporate psychopaths are not running from the law, but instead, rushing to the executive suite. One route to grabbing power for the highly intelligent psychopath is to climb the corporate ladder. There is a real chance that at some point a chief financial officer will be confronted with a psychopathic boss.”

Classic non-axe wielding psychopathic traits include: superficial charm, a calculating mind, grandiosity, manipulative behavior, lack of remorse and empathy, and refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. These characteristics would naturally come in handy for a corporation that requires cutthroat decision-making to generate maximum profits.

While CEOs rank as the most likely profession for psychopaths, politicians are not far behind. On the other end of the spectrum are nurses and caregivers. So, it would follow that CEOs are lacking—or perceived as lacking—empathy.

Statistics from Business Solver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Report show that 48% of employees believe companies as a whole are empathetic, versus 68% of CEOs. Interestingly, 91% of CEOs say their company is empathetic, but only 68% of employees agree.

On the topic of leadership and compassion, researchers in the Harvard Business Review concluded, “It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains, and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to.” It’s called the ‘hubris syndrome’, where power corrupts the brain’s wiring. Dubbed by David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, he defines the hubris syndrome as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

When we think of heroic leaders past, empathy is not the word that comes to mind. Strong leadership has traditionally been associated with masculine—even militaristic—traits. While there are several leadership theories, one that has endured is the ‘Great Man’ theory: that leadership is inherent and those great leaders are born, not made. The problem with this theory is that it wants to portray great leaders as heroic, mythic and destined to rise to leadership when called.

Such theories suggest that people cannot really learn how to become strong leaders. It’s a nature versus nurture argument. Moreover, it can trap our modern leaders into a kind of hero complex that is as destructive as it is powerful, with at least one in five CEOs regularly sitting in the therapist’s chair.

In her article, Leaders, Stop Trying to Be Heroes, Hortense le Gentil presents three steps leaders can take on their journeys from ‘hero leader to human leader’. “The most effective leadership today—at all levels—isn’t about technical expertise and having all the answers. Besides articulating a compelling vision, it’s about being human, showing vulnerability, connecting with people, and being able to unleash their potential. Seemingly fearless hero leaders are facing one sizable obstacle: their own fear.”

While this outlook may seem bleak, and the profile of a typical American Fortune 500 CEO remains “still white, still male,” a lot has changed in recent years to give broader stakeholders reason for hope. With the ripple effects of the pandemic, coupled with the rise of corporate responsibility (CSR) and ESG scores (Environmental, Social and Governance), and adoption of Diversity and Inclusion policies, executive leaders are becoming more accountable as individuals and responsible as corporate citizens.

It’s unknown whether the existing model of a corporation or big business will be changed substantially from within to attract a different kind of candidate. In the end, we can only wish that our future Masters of the Universe step into their power as masters of their own universes—those who inspire and carry their teams and communities to a more evolved kind of leadership. For want of a better term, self-mastery.”

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