CEOs: Founders beat out managers

By Felix Salmon
November 5, 2009
naming Steve Jobs its CEO of the decade, for his work at Apple.

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We’re less than two months from a New Year’s where a 9 ticks over into a 0, and so that means all manner of decade retrospectives. (And still we haven’t come up with a name for this decade!) Fortune is getting into the game early, naming Steve Jobs its CEO of the decade, for his work at Apple.

What’s more interesting to me is the list of 12 “also-rans” for the title: Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Warren Buffett, Bernie Madoff, Carlos Slim, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Alan Greenspan, and Martha Stewart. Five of the 12 aren’t CEOs at all (Page, Brin, Skilling, Fastow, Greenspan); and not a single one of the 12 is a CEO who was hired to run a company by its board of directors.

Jobs, by contrast, is such a CEO, in a manner of speaking: although he did found Apple, he sold all his shares when he was ousted in the 80s, and was hired back by Apple’s board. (As a result, he’s made more money from Pixar than he has from Apple.)

It’s natural for company founders to give themselves the CEO job. But how come all of Fortune’s top CEOs seem to be founders, and none of them are in the much more common position of having been hired, by the board, to run the company?

10 comments

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We usually only notice Founder CEOs if their companies are successful. Their track record is already tied to the growth of the company. Outsider CEOs hired by the board get called in to lead already-grown companies. Their track record before the job is independent from the company. Also, success for them is often just not ruining what’s been built.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

Also, Bill Gates has not been CEO of Microsoft since 2000.

Posted by right | Report as abusive

This looks like a list of “Most Newsworthy CEOs/Business Leaders” not “Business Leaders Who Have Created The Most Shareholder Value.” I don’t understand the inclusion of Greenspan at all.

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

Perhaps because of a decades-long cult of the entrepreneur in the business press and business sections of the popular press?

I saw the Jobs pick on Fortune’s website and said to a colleague: “By now it’s the exact formal equivalent of a Brangelina cover for People or Entertainment Weekly: zero new information, but a guaranteed readership bump.”

Posted by Monte Davis | Report as abusive

winner’s curse

Posted by Eli | Report as abusive

Cult of the entrepreneur? Surely that’s preferable to the cult of the brilliant manager.

Entrepreneurs take risks. It’s part of their very nature. When they steer companies, they tend to opt for the riskier course, with correspondingly higher rewards. So they’re more likely to fall on either side of the bell curve of performance than in the middle. They’re generally driven by something greater than the desire to maximize shareholders value – a vision of what their company can do, and what it can become. That sort of vision tends to be necessary for really great success – and, with even higher frequency, results in truly catastrophic failure, when a more cautious course might have produced stability.

Posted by Cynic | Report as abusive

The Noughties, is my view.

Posted by dave.s. | Report as abusive

Skilling was Enron’s CEO from February 12, 2001 to August 14, 2001–and (or at any rate approved) by Enron’s board.

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

Can anyone find a way that taxpayers don’t lose?

Posted by Janus Daniels | Report as abusive

Probably because there’s a vaccuum of true leaders in this planet now, evident from the crisis we’ve just been. No wonder founders/entrepreneurs have that intrinsic leadership in them that lifts them to Fortune 500 group.