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Names Change, But the CEO Mystique Endures

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

The names change. So do the industries. But the mystique of the all-knowing CEO endures.

In a previous generation, it was General Electric Co.’s Jack Welch. He was supposed to be a super genius who was the smartest man in the room. Welch biographers ran with this storyline to sell their books.

By the time Welch died in 2020, the executive’s legacy was a lot more complicated. GE, certainly, wasn’t anywhere near as invincible as it seemed during Welch’s tenure.

In the third decade of the 21st century, it’s Elon Musk as the invincible CEO.

Musk runs an electric-car company that is the globe’s most valuable automaker by share price. More than Toyota Motor Corp. More than Honda Motor Co. More than General Motors Co. Etc., etc., etc.

The executive also runs SpaceX, a rocket company. He’s a real-life version of Ian Fleming’s Hugo Drax, firing off privately funded rockets.

A new book, Power Play, by Tim Higgins, reports that Musk was approached about a merger with Apple Inc. Reportedly, Musk was fine but wanted to be CEO of the combined entity. Things didn’t work out.

Disclosure: I was once a co-worker of Higgins and edited his stories on occasion. But that was almost a decade ago and I haven’t discussed any of this with him.

To be sure, Musk is now denying the Higgins account. He sent out a July 30 tweet saying he and Apple chief Tim Cook “have never spoken or written to each other ever.”

Perhaps that’s so. At the same time, executives are known to deny things they know to be true.

Regardless, Musk is the latest executive to benefit from the CEO mystique.

Selling yourself as a visionary is, relatively, easy. Execution is tougher. In the past decade, Tesla has encountered difficulty in executing Musk’s vision.

Musk is great at playing Tony Stark. He’s had problems being Henry Ford, somebody who can dependably produce vehicles at a steady rate.

Still, those who chronicle American business can’t help themselves. Seemingly invincible CEOs make for great copy. Dealing with nuance and complications? That’s not as much fun.

It remains to be seen who will be the next darling for business biographers.

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