CEOs don’t matter unless they’re boring; the rest of us should read more

People like to beat up on CEOs.  I figure it’s part of the job, but recently in a short span of time, I came across one article saying that CEOs don’t matter that much at all, and another suggesting that they should be boring.

The Atlantic trotted out some research about the actual impact of charismatic CEOs on the performance of their companies.  I was particularly amused that the URL names Steve Jobs without anything about CEOs in general.  Then, I saw David Brooks’ essay in the New York Times in which he opens with “Should CEOs read more novels?” and goes on to say the answer is no because they don’t actually need to have the depth of thought that novel-reading seems to engender.

I was offended on behalf of literature more than on behalf of the CEOs.  They can take it, I figure.  But I do firmly believe that everybody who can should make time in their lives for fiction.  I don’t mean it has to be novels, or even writing.  I mean people should make room for imaginative thought and storytelling, which could come from many kinds of media.

Brooks goes on to explain why he thinks that the skills and personality traits that make successful businesspeople, politicians and academics are fundamentally different.  I can’t completely disagree, but I think all of those groups could benefit from a little dabbling in the materials and traits of the others.  I’m a gourmand that way, I guess.

I’ve been on a high-fiber non-fiction diet lately, with Harvard Business Review, The Worst Hard Time, Uncharitable and now Thinking in Pictures occupying my queue.  And I don’t regret those choices at all – all good stuff that’s expanding my thinking.

But I saw the film, The Limits of Control last week and while some reviews have been mixed, I can safely say it was thought-provoking in an entirely different way.  Not just because it was a film – I’ve read books that were similarly jarring and fascinating at the same time. I can’t tell you that this movie will make me better at doing my job in any identifiable way, but I consider it a valuable mental workout to think differently on a regular basis, exercising both hemispheres equally if possible.

In business school, a place where the purely intellectual and artistic are often sidelined in favor of the practical (and I think I went to a more egg-headed b-school than most), I resolutely stuck with novel-reading and told everybody who would listen that they should do the same.

And now I’m in a book club half populated with business school classmates.  None of us are CEOs yet, and none of us are boring. Go figure.

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