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Leadership: It’s hit or myth

Media congloms don’t need more mega-egos at the top. The next generation of CEOs will have to figure out how to make their corporate monoliths actually work.

The first CEO I ever worked for, Charles Bluhdorn, had two cardinal rules: Keep buying and keep yelling. He tried to buy every company in sight and, if anyone got in his way, he shouted them into submission. This included government functionaries, a practice that almost landed him in the slammer.

CEOs haven’t mellowed since Bluhdorn, but they’ve become a lot more self-protective. Mindful of the charges against the Dennis Kozlowskis and the clamor surrounding Michael Eisner, CEOs today are pathologically cautious in their pronouncements. According to a survey in last week’s USA Today, many have even voluntarily reduced their pay packages, though the adjustments are by no means consistent with job performance.

A couple of years ago, CEOs were glowering at us from the covers of every business magazine, advancing grandiose promises about growth. Today CEOs like Richard Parsons of Time Warner or Mel Karmazin of Viacom hold forth on “fiscal discipline” and tippy-toe around talk of deals.

A key reason: “Investors are wary about big deals because in the past most didn’t work,” noted analyst Craig Moffett.

Indeed, you don’t even see CEOs around much any more.

Eisner didn’t attend the premiere of “The Alamo.” It’s rare to see a quote from even the garrulous Sir Howard Stringer. And consider the number of high-flyers who’ve simply vaporized — Gerald Levin, Steve Case or Robert Pittman.

“They were lionized in the press and celebrated as larger-than-life figures … yet in the end, each in turn suffered ridicule and rebuke,” observes Christopher Byron in his new book, “Testosterone Inc.: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild.”

This disappearance of the CEO as mythmaker has opened up an intriguing question: Who is going to run our major corporations in the future?

In discussing possible successors to Eisner, for example, some frustrated Wall Street mavens have concluded, “There’s nobody out there.”

This conclusion buys into the very theory that most people now decry: namely, that a CEO has to be a mythic visionary. An argument could be made that the epoch of the Rupert Murdochs is now behind us. Through charisma, intimidation and the shrewd manipulation of debt, they forged their multinational mega-companies.

But now, contrary to the notions of Wall Street, the entertainment industry doesn’t need another Murdoch, Eisner or Redstone, but rather someone who can figure out how to make these corporate monoliths work.

The next generation of leaders will likely be more akin to portfolio managers and corporate bureaucrats rather than rainmakers. And it’s absurd to suggest leaders do not exist.

To name a few:

Peter Chernin of News Corp.: Cool-headed and articulate, Chernin has shown a remarkable talent for steering his company through difficult times while at the same time accommodating the ambitions and idiosyncrasies of a maze of Murdochs. Unlike most corporate functionaries, Chernin has actually held operating jobs in the various sectors of entertainment over which he now presides, including books, television and film.

Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner: Soft-spoken but superbly savvy, Bewkes has provided intelligent leadership of his company’s entertainment assets while aggressively maintaining an under-the-radar public posture. Having led HBO to its most profitable years, Bewkes understands the financial perquisites of corporate life but also “gets” the contradictions and demands of showmanship.

Tom Freston of Viacom: A true corporate “original,” Freston actually created an important show business asset — MTV — rather than simply amassing assets through fiscal manipulation. Freston has demonstrated corporate courage — who else would start his entrepreneurial career in Afghanistan? — and has also proven to be an adept survivor in the turbulent media world.

There are other layers of talent under these three who have demonstrated leadership potential and who will doubtless emerge in senior positions.

The contention that the entertainment business is devoid of leadership talent is manifestly absurd. The only question is when this next generation will emerge and how they can mobilize their complex corporate constituencies to consolidate their power.

And then there’s that other question: Will they have the smarts to resist the excesses and ego trips of their predecessors? Will they be able to deal with the realization that the era of the CEO as mythic figure is over?

If they need a reminder, consider this: George W. Bush is the first occupant of the White House who keeps referring to himself as “The CEO President.”

Need there be further evidence?

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