Was This a Sign That I Should Retire?

It was my first class of the day; 8:00 am. I was ready.

It was a topic I had taught dozens of times: Management and Leadership. I had prepped for the class a few days prior, updating my material to make it as current as possible.

One of the things I like to do in this Intro to Business class is to give the students some appreciation for the history of business and expose them to some of the great leaders in business, both past and present.

As such, during the class, I shared a 2009 list from the now-defunct Portfolio magazine that ranks the best, and worst, CEOs of all-time. Fortunately, even though the magazine no longer exists, another web site (Own the Dollar) saved the rankings. The reason for using a list that may be considered somewhat dated is because quite simply there are not many such lists that include CEOs from so far back, and this seemed to be a fairly balanced list. In case you are interested, here is the list of the top 20:

  1. Henry Ford – Ford Motors
  2. J.P. Morgan – JP Morgan & Co.
  3. Sam Walton – Wal-Mart
  4. Alfred Sloan – General Motors (1923-1946)
  5. Lou Gerstner – IBM (1993-2002)
  6. John D. Rockefeller – Standard Oil
  7. Steve Jobs – Apple
  8. Jeff Bezos – Amazon
  9. Andrew Carnegie – Carnegie Steel
  10.  Bill Gates – Microsoft
  11.  Michael Bloomberg – Bloomberg LP
  12.  Ray Kroc – McDonald’s (1955-1973)
  13.  Andy Grove – Intel (1987-1998)
  14.  Walt Disney – Walt Disney Company
  15.  Reuben Mark – Colgate-Palmolive (1984-2007)
  16.  Warren Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway
  17.  Katharine Graham – Washington Post Co. (1973-1991)
  18.  Lee Iacocca – Chrysler (1979-1992)
  19.  Herb Kelleher – Southwest Airlines
  20.  Oprah Winfrey – Harpo Productions

I talked about a few of the people on the list, and then I asked the students if there are any modern-day CEOs they might add to the list. Some of the names suggested were Elon Musk, Reed Hastings, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey.

I then showed the students the list of the worst 20 CEOs of all time:

  1. Dick Fuld – Lehman Brothers
  2. Angelo Mozilo – Countrywide Financial
  3. Ken Lay – Enron
  4. Jimmy Cayne – Bear Stearns
  5. Bernie Ebbers – WorldCom
  6. Al Dunlap – Sunbeam
  7. Fred Joseph – Drexel Burnham Lambert
  8. Jay Gould – Western Union
  9. John Patterson – National Cash Register Co. (1884-1921)
  10.  John Akers – IBM (1985-1993)
  11.  Henry Frick – Carnegie Steel (1889-1900)
  12.  Bob Allen – AT&T
  13.  Roger Smith – General Motors (1981-1990)
  14.  John Sculley – Apple (1983-1993)
  15.  Martin Sullivan – AIG
  16.  Gerald Levin – Time Warner (1992-2002)
  17.  Bob Nardelli – Home Depot & Chrysler
  18.  Stan O’Neal – Merrill Lynch
  19.  Carly Fiorina – Hewlett-Packard
  20.  Vikram Pandit – Citigroup

The first thing that popped out to me when I saw the list of the worst 20 CEOs of all time (and it popped out to the author of the article at Own the Dollar as well) was that it was heavily influenced by what was going on at that time in 2009. That was the heart of the financial crisis, and Portfolio magazine seemed to be somewhat biased against the CEOs of financial services firms.

At this point, like I have done in years past, I mentioned that there was one person conspicuously left off the list(s).

As I started to say his name, it happened. I drew a blank. I could not remember the name.

The only name that kept coming to mind was John, but that just didn’t seem right. As I stared back at the faces of our best and brightest (this was an honors section), I tried to solicit their help by saying the guy was a former CEO at General Electric, but that did not help them, or me. I finally admitted that I couldn’t come up with the name, and I would let them know the next class. However, as they were packing up, I did a quick search, and there he was, staring back at me, Jack Welch.

I then offered my thoughts on why he may not have been chosen, and that may have been because the editors weren’t sure which list to put Welch on. Many people consider Welch one of the best CEOs of all time; in fact, a Business Insider article from 2011 ranked Welch second of the 21 best CEOs of the previous 20 years. Fortune named him “the manager of the century.”

However, there are some people who did not look so favorably on Welch. There was a reason he was often referred to as Neutron Jack. Here are two such stories about the havoc Wech wreaked on corporate America (one, two).

So perhaps Portfolio just didn’t want to pick sides and left him off completely.

After the students left class, I had a few minutes before my next section came in, and all I could do was think about how I had forgotten Jack Welch’s name. I started wondering if it was a subtle message about retirement. Was I not as sharp as I once was? Was forgetting my wife’s name next?

Fortunately, I did not have the chance to ponder the question too long, as students started arriving.

And you’ll be happy to know that I did not forget Jack’s name for my next four classes.

So maybe I can put those retirement thoughts out of my head for a bit longer…

*image from Hindustan Times

61 thoughts on “Was This a Sign That I Should Retire?

  1. Maybe some of those Top 20 CEO’s could teach our president about leadership. He claims telling the truth about SARS CoV-2 would create panic. In a crisis good leaders don’t lie about the facts, paint a rosy picture, and bury their heads in the sand. They deal with the problem and avoid panic by explaining the situation clearly and accurately, developing a plan to deal with the problem, communicating the plan, marshaling the required resources, persuading people to make the required effort, and implementing the plan and sticking with it or making necessary adjustments. Our fearless leader can only lie, blame others, and deny all responsibility. He is feckless. This rant seemed appropriate with the topic being management and leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Gosh! The approach I outline seems logical to me but I’m no leadership guru. Those who study (or teach) leadership would come up with a better approach. I didn’t think you were serious about possibly retiring or in need of advice or reassurance from the WordPress peanut gallery. 😄

        My comment wasn’t about politics even though it was about a politician. The comment was about saving tens of thousands of American lives. When public health and science becomes political, heaven help our country.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. If you want to look at management and leadership in this crisis, you have to look at the Governors of each state and mayors of municipalities because, as you probably know, each state manages its own response to the coronavirus pandemic.

      At the Federal level President Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency in Mid March and previously spearheaded travel bans that prevented foreigners from China, South Korea, Iran, and all of Europe from entering the U.S.

      He urged Americans to avoid non-essential travel and to stop eating in bars, restaurants, and food courts. As businesses shuttered he backed efforts to get financial aid to those who needed it.

      There is, of course, a detailed action and resource plan: https://www.usa.gov/coronavirus
      Vice President Mike Pence is in charge federal response to the coronavirus. Other advisors include Deborah Birx, the physician and diplomat who is the response “coordinator.” Health secretary Alex Azar is the chair of the Coronavirus Task Force. The most visible has been Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How frustrating, when it’s right on the tip of your tongue.

    I don’t care how lousy some of those CEO’s were. I’d trade everything I’ve ever earned in my entire life, for just one year’s salary from most of them (in today’s dollars).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’re tongue in cheek about retirement. It seems to me that the most significant factor about whether to retire should be your overall health and happiness. It looks like both of those are in line, so why stop?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. most definitely tongue-in-cheek, but it was somewhat embarrassing, but that’s not the first time I’ve embarrassed myself in front of the classroom…

      and yes, knock on wood, I am still happy and healthy…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. All my life I’ve been terrible at remembering names, so I didn’t see that as a sign of senile decay. A couple of years before I retired, I started getting terrible at remembering all kinds of words – not just the long ones.
    Now retired (nearly ten years… where did they go?) I don’t see so many people everyday to practice on… That was when I decided the sudoku needed to be supplemented with writing.

    Thank Microsoft for the instant thesaurus.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that these ‘blips’ happen every day, (at least to me), but it is felt so much more when you are presenting something professionally or otherwise, where you are supposed to be the one sharing the knowledge, and then it suddenly disappears for a bit. it sounds like you are a natural professor, and it’s not yet your time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes, they happen to me many times as well. And I am not sure I am a natural teacher, but at this point, I don’t think I have any other marketable skills, so I’ll stick with it a bit longer…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a fun list to talk about with the students. It would have been interesting if the list had been compiled five years prior to the financial collapse…


      1. I will give you the name of one of Montana’s worst CEOs ever, Bob Gannon. He attempted to flip Montana’s most stable company, Montana Power (electricity, natural gas, and electricity generation) into Touch America in the late 90s. Montana consumers lost their low-cost utility rates, and Touch America went bust.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “I then showed the students the list of the worst 20 CEOs of all time:”

    Based on what criteria?

    Seems by my criteria Bezos, Musk and Zuckerberg are among the worst and are the worst failures in history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. here is what I found based on a search: “Assembling a panel of professors from the top business schools around the country, Portfolio surveyed them on the records of CEOs who best created (or destroyed) value, innovation, while possessing the best (or worst) management skills.”

      It will be interesting to see if Bezos, Musk, and Zuckerberg stand the test of time, like many of the successful CEOs on the list have done…


      1. Would like to see a measurement based on social good that outweighs wealth acquisition for the few at the expense of the many.

        Also: Thinking of “Good to Great” and wondering how many of those “titans” actually stood the test of time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think there is more of a concern for at least a company’s impact beyond just profits than there has been in the past. And I am sure that many of those titans had their flaws, like all of us…


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