by The Inmate
The Debate Over the Existence of CEO’s Faces a Third Alternative
A Book Review by Emma Lupien
DO CEO’S EXIST?
An Inquiry Into the Not So Obvious
by J. Herbert Guest
Magnolia Publishers, New York, 1999
538 pages / $29.95 hardback
The existence of CEO’s has been debated since the inception of corporations in 16th century England. In the beginning the argument of experience prevailed: I’ve met one. Skeptics quickly attacked this reasoning. It is not possible, they argued, to accept someone else’s experience as a basis for one’s own belief. Those who assert they have met a CEO may be lying or delusional just as the person claiming to be a CEO might be. The skeptics, however, never gained a large following. Believers accused them of using reason where only faith should be allowed. Most people believed in the existence of CEO’s even though they never claimed to have met one. Their belief, they argued, is corroborated by the hundreds of people who say they have come face-to-face with a living, breathing CEO.
Of the many books on the subject only two deserve to be mentioned here: CEO’s: A Systematic Investigation by Junter Miller and Corporations and the Death of CEO’s by Elizabeth Esther Hopewell. These two books have been the standard texts at all major universities for the past five decades. Scholars continue to debate their validity, but all agree no other books on the subject achieve the scope and scholarship exhibited by Miller and Hopewell. With the publication of J. Herbert Guest’s Do CEO’s Exist? that common held opinion may have to be altered.
For centuries the existence of CEO’s was a belief held without question by all but only a few scholars. Not until Hopewell’s book appeared, written fifty-four years ago, did the skeptics’ view receive honest consideration. It quickly gained a following from scholars and particularly laymen who had difficulty reconciling the horrendous state of corporations with the existence of CEO’s. If CEO’s existed why was morale low, work unrewarding, bureaucracy rampant and layoffs frequent? Only a sentimental fool could look at the work environment and believe CEO’s existed. Hopewell’s book persuaded thousands.
Her thesis has stood firm: CEO’s do not exist; the title was created to keep employees from pursuing and controlling their own destiny. The belief that CEO’s are responsible for the state of the corporation, whatever it may be, makes employees passive and therefore easily ruled by those who claim to be acting by the authority of the CEO. Hence they blame CEO’s for their plight, ridiculing them if it is bad, praising them if it is good.
Eight years after the publication of Corporations and the Death of CEO’s Miller answered Hopewell with CEO’s: A Systematic Investigation. His most famous argument is that of causality: How could corporations exist without CEO’s? The idea that corporations spontaneously emerge without the impetus of a seasoned executive is ludicrous. Miller contends, a bit sarcastically, that if the belief in the nonexistence of CEO’s ever becomes the predominant one then corporations will slowly cease to exist. He also pointed to many successful corporations inhabited by contented employees. When questioned about poor working conditions, layoffs and low wages, Miller answered that CEO’s could not be held responsible for fluctuations in the market that affect corporations adversely.
Hopewell countered this by arguing that such a belief could not then allow CEO’s to be responsible for the good achieved by those employees. “If CEO’s are to be given credit for the good then they also should be given credit for the bad.” Here she would pause, then continue in her famous ironic tone, “Of course, many CEO’s have accepted the blame for company blunders–if it will look good on their resumes” to which Miller retorted, “I did not know a non-existent being could have a resume.”
Hopewell/Miller debates were famous during the late fifties and early sixties. Both made millions of dollars traveling across the country giving lectures and debating one another. Though both authors are now dead the controversy remains.
Guest, however, has done a remarkable thing. In what had appeared to be a two-sided argument he has purported a third view. Though careful to acknowledge his debt to Miller and Hopewell, this does not stop him from finally dismissing their views.
The question of the existence or nonexistence of CEO’s is an important place to start, but it is only important in so much as it teaches the young scholar that the question cannot be answered with any certainty. Do CEO’s exist? The question is meaningless [italics mine].
Guest’s opening argument is that the existence of CEO’s cannot be logically connected to the state of the work environment. CEO’s may exist with a bad work environment. Hopewell made an erroneous assumption espousing that CEO’s could not exist because poor work environments were prevalent: CEO’s might be responsible for that environment. Hopewell comes close to saying this, but unfortunately falls short. A similar argument works against Miller who assumed great work environments were a direct result of the existence of CEO’s. The alternative, as Hopewell also pointed out, is that a good work environment might be present because CEO’s do not exist. Guest takes it one step further and says it may be there in spite of their existence. If CEO’s exist, the connection between them and the condition of the corporation goes through, in theory, so many channels that a causal relationship between the two is statistically impossible.
But Guest only points out the weaknesses of Miller and Hopewell to prepare the reader for his thesis. Throughout his book he refuses to give any hint of what he thinks the answer to the question is. In his view it is an unimportant question for this reason: the work environment is the way it is regardless of whether or not one believes or does not believe in the existence of CEO’s. His philosophy can be summed up this way: “Do CEO’s exist? Who cares?”
What he does care about is how the work environment affects employees and what they can do to affect that environment, to mold it to benefit them. The constant bickering about the question has done little, if anything, to provide answers of any practical benefit. Both sides point out the failures of the corporation, but both sides are more interested in placing the blame somewhere than learning to achieve contentment within their workplace. “Believe whatever you want,” Guest writes, “but make sure that belief leaves you a slave of yourself and not the corporation.”
If one believes in CEO’s, Guest offers this advice: any conception of a CEO will be too optimistic. Theologians tell us God transcends our thoughts; Guest tells us our thoughts transcend CEO’s. How much do CEO’s affect the success of the company? Guest says any answer given will be too much. He directs readers to Tolstoy and his belief that there is no direct causal relationship between the powerful people of history(like Napoleon) and the events of history.
The movement of nations is caused not by power, nor by any intellectual activity, nor even by a combination of the two, as historians have supposed, but by the activity of all the people participating in the event, who always combine in such a way that those who take the largest direct share in the event take the least responsibility, and vice versa.
—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Hence Guest argues that even if a CEO were to show up in the workplace and take credit for the numerous accomplishments or detriments of the company that event would not change the fact that the real responsibility for those events resides with management and workers as a whole. Here Guest’s view will be controversial not only with management but also with workers.
Guest maintains that a company that is run well, that treats its workers with respect, does so not solely because of management but because of the contribution of all employees. Likewise is the case with a company that is run poorly, that treats workers with no respect. In such a company workers allow themselves to be taken advantage of, allow procedures to affect their morale and allow themselves to descend into the same types of behavior they deplore in management. In this kind of company management treats workers badly because they face little opposition, therefore both sides share the responsibility of the overall tone of the company.
Then Guest drops another bomb–an indictment not only against poorly run companies but against the general populace.
Poor work environments are perpetuated for this simple reason: the masses are so influenced by their environment that upon entering a bad corporation they immediately accept the culture and the personality of that corporation without thought or reflection. The same holds true for those who are hired by good corporations. In this sense the masses are ruled by chance. Genuine individuality is the exception not the rule.
Some would say Guest goes too far in this assertion by placing an extreme amount of emphasis on individuals’ ability to shape their own reality. There are, his detractors defend, bad situations in which, through no fault of their own, individuals are powerless against the forces that surround them. They must endure. Guest believes this gives far too much power to those who wield their position solely for their own gain. He acknowledges that there are circumstances which seem impossible to deal with, but workers throughout history have always found creative and ingenious ways to fight against the institutions that would try to rule them.
For Guest, it is the fight that matters. The final chapters of his book ignore the question of the existence of CEO’s and instead focus on strategies that enable employees to shape the corporation into an organic body of interconnected parts that all contribute to its good health and, therefore, the good health of its members.
Will Guest’s book become equal or superior to Miller’s and Hopewell’s or will it finally drift away and be forgotten? Only the passage of time can answer this question. But if I were to offer a guess, Guest’s name, along with his thesis, will only survive on his gravestone not because his propositions do not have merit, but because the masses, like the corporations they make up, prefer the comfort of long-held beliefs over honest self-examination.