What the Anti-CEO Playbook Really Looks Like
It's much more radical than what Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya proposes.
By Tim Leberecht
According to an analysis by the New York Times, CEO compensation grew at double the pace of ordinary workers’ wages in 2018. Topping the list: Tesla’s Elon Musk, with a $2.3 billion package, which is 40,668 times more than what the company’s median worker earns in a year. Disney CEO Bob Iger’s pay ratio pales in comparison, but it’s still an obscene 1,424-to-1, according to Bloomberg. Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy Disney, sharply criticized this pay gap and lamented it as having “a corrosive effect on society.”
Amidst all this, Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder, owner, and CEO of Greek yoghurt maker Chobani, proposed an “anti-CEO playbook” in his eponymous TED Talk.
Now, if you expected a rallying cry against unfair CEO compensation, you’ll be disappointed: the flavor of the yoghurt maker’s playbook is vanilla.
That’s a pity because Ulukaya has otherwise walked the walk and exemplified many of the traits we would look for in an enlightened CEO. He generously handed out stock to all of his employees in 2016 (in fact, a reported 10 percent of his shares, which turned some of his long-time employees into millionaires). In a polarized political climate, he made a point of hiring immigrants and refugees, who, he told Inc, make up 30 percent of his staff. By all accounts, he demonstrates the qualities of a servant leader. And yet, he did not say a word about the executive pay gap–plus the irony that it’s still a CEO standing on the TED stage, in front of many other CEOs, announcing the anti-CEO playbook.
He is a remarkable CEO. But an anti-CEO he is not.
The real anti-CEO leads in leaderless structures
Anti-CEOs are people who organize and lead differently, and more radically: not from the top down–based on big title and formal power–but from the bottom up, by virtue of soft power. These new leaders are people like Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old activist who inspired the Fridays for Future youth movement across the world. Or companies that forego the role of CEO altogether and instead self-organize in a decentralized way, such as software consultancy Crisp, which has no CEO (but a Board), watchmaker Richemont, content management software company Solodev, or construction company DPR.
But it’s not just leaderless structures that would make an anti-CEO playbook really live up to its name–it requires a more profound cultural shift. If business were truly about people over profits, as Ulukaya proclaims, the anti-CEO would rage in the face of the inequality which is expressed and aggravated by the growing pay gap. If business were really about people, companies would create a workplace focused on joyful exploration instead of gamifying their employees into desired behaviours enhancing productivity and efficiency. If business were truly about people, companies would not reward assertiveness and competitiveness, but foster collaboration and empathy among their staff–even and especially when times get tough.
Wanted: the anti-macho CEO
Leaders have long been expected to be firm, consistent, and infallible. The good news is: Slowly but surely, our notion of leadership is changing and becoming less monolithic and more diverse, shifting from action to sensitivity, from hero to anti-hero, from superhuman to human. If not an anti-CEO, we will at least need a CEO who’s anti-macho.
In a recent talk, Andreas Gall, the chief innovation officer at Red Bull Media House, pinpointed the flaws of an entrepreneurial culture obsessed with the extroverted, manifest in start-up pitch contests or corporate ideas competitions. He calls them “tribunals” at which–thumbs up or down–expert authorities judge contestants based on the degree to which they exhibit coolness and stubbornness. Gall argues that the judges often see just the tip of the iceberg, and as a result, many good ideas (and promising founders) go unnoticed.
This is why Ian McDonald, CTO-in-residence at Microsoft for Start-ups, has stopped making founders pitch as they apply to join the company’s programs: “Being able to sell yourself is important, but it’s far from the only thing that you need to succeed,” he says. For starters, our idealized profile of the entrepreneurial leader excludes people with fear of public speaking. Moreover, we often mistake demonstrative confidence and irrefutable beliefs as evidence of entrepreneurship, when in fact, introspection and (self-)doubt may be much more critical traits.
Doubt is the new loud
Susan Cain, the author of the bestseller Quiet and founder of the Quiet Revolution, has done a remarkable job re-appraising the value of introverts in a “world that can’t stop talking.” She has carved out a space in business for those to be heard who do not scream the loudest, liberating a significant part of the workforce from an all-too-narrow definition of leadership.
Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, goes a step further. She has coined a new leadership model in politics: municipalism. It’s a more cooperative brand of politics that does not pretend to have all the answers and is comfortable with admitting that it cannot always come up with solutions to complex problems. In fact, she prides herself with “non-solutions.”
That sounds like a far cry from a “playbook.” But even if Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya may not go far enough with his proposal, he does represent the change that’s underway. The old model of leadership is no longer working, and CEOs like him have a critical role to play in shaping the new one. They can nurture and role-model a new set of leadership qualities that break with traditional conventions.
Leading from the bottom up. Work cultures that are gardens, not machines. Doubt as the new loud. And not the least, diminish the pay gap.
This article appeared originally on Inc.com.