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:
- Henry Ford – Ford Motors
- J.P. Morgan – JP Morgan & Co.
- Sam Walton – Wal-Mart
- Alfred Sloan – General Motors (1923-1946)
- Lou Gerstner – IBM (1993-2002)
- John D. Rockefeller – Standard Oil
- Steve Jobs – Apple
- Jeff Bezos – Amazon
- Andrew Carnegie – Carnegie Steel
- Bill Gates – Microsoft
- Michael Bloomberg – Bloomberg LP
- Ray Kroc – McDonald’s (1955-1973)
- Andy Grove – Intel (1987-1998)
- Walt Disney – Walt Disney Company
- Reuben Mark – Colgate-Palmolive (1984-2007)
- Warren Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway
- Katharine Graham – Washington Post Co. (1973-1991)
- Lee Iacocca – Chrysler (1979-1992)
- Herb Kelleher – Southwest Airlines
- 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:
- Dick Fuld – Lehman Brothers
- Angelo Mozilo – Countrywide Financial
- Ken Lay – Enron
- Jimmy Cayne – Bear Stearns
- Bernie Ebbers – WorldCom
- Al Dunlap – Sunbeam
- Fred Joseph – Drexel Burnham Lambert
- Jay Gould – Western Union
- John Patterson – National Cash Register Co. (1884-1921)
- John Akers – IBM (1985-1993)
- Henry Frick – Carnegie Steel (1889-1900)
- Bob Allen – AT&T
- Roger Smith – General Motors (1981-1990)
- John Sculley – Apple (1983-1993)
- Martin Sullivan – AIG
- Gerald Levin – Time Warner (1992-2002)
- Bob Nardelli – Home Depot & Chrysler
- Stan O’Neal – Merrill Lynch
- Carly Fiorina – Hewlett-Packard
- 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