Portfolio's best and worst CEOs

Portfolio.com recently released its list of the world's 20 best and 20 worst CEOs. Taken as a pair, the lists say a lot about American business, but say even more about how Americans view business.

The compilation of the 20 best contains few surprises. America's car magnates are prominently featured, as befits a country in which the V-8 is next to godliness: Henry Ford is number one, and is joined by GM's Alfred Sloan and Chrysler's Lee Iacocca. For that matter, some of America's greatest innovators also made it to the top 20; in addition to Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Ray Kroc, and Walt Disney are all on the list. There are a few monopolists, including John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, as well as a few dedicated money men, like Warren Buffett, JP Morgan, and Michael Bloomberg.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the list of the 20 best CEOs is the odd coincidences and strange placements. For example, both of the women who made the list -- Kathryn Graham and Oprah Winfrey -- are involved in the media. Another strange thing is that Steve Jobs, whose history at Apple has been rocky at times, is ranked above both Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Microsoft's Bill Gates. Even Walt Disney's placement on the list seems a little odd when one considers the media moguls, including Jack Warner, Rupert Murdock, and William Randolph Hearst, who were left off. For that matter, it's a little strange that everyone on the list is American.

The list of worst CEOs is even more baffling, if only because it can't decide on a consistent criteria. The most prominent measure of poor corporate governance seems to be abject failure; to this end, Dick Fuld, Angelo Mozilo, Ken Lay, Jimmy Cayne, and John Akers all made the bottom 20, as did several other CEOs who managed to destroy shareholder value. This makes sense: after all, driving one's company into the ground is a great way to demonstrate total incompetence.

However, a few of the supposedly worst CEOs were actually pretty successful guys. Jay Gould, for example, was amazingly unscrupulous, but he died with a personal fortune that was estimated at over $67 billion in today's dollars. He also, not coincidentally, managed to build some pretty big railroads.

Similarly, NCR's John Patterson was an obsessive control freak and an emotional manipulator who, in hindsight, comes off as a corporate business version of Ike Turner. However, he was also revered, in his time, as an innovative and caring boss. He replaced sweatshops with "daylight factories" and established a sales training program that revolutionized the industry. For that matter, he was also incredibly successful, creating a company that was worth millions of dollars when he died.

It seems like some of Portfolio's other worst CEOs are judged almost entirely on their exit packages. The piece prominently mentions Bob Nardelli's $210 million, Stan O'Neal's $161.5 million, and Martin Sullivan's $25.4 million, ignoring the fact that these particular excesses say a lot more about the board than they do about the CEO. For that matter, the $38.2 million that Vikram Pandit's took home in 2008 admittedly seems excessive, given that taxpayers were keeping Citi afloat. However, one could easily argue that the failure is, again, that of the company's board.

In the end, while there is little doubt that every person on Portfolio's "worst" list embraced failure in his or her own special way, it would make a lot more sense if the site could at least agree with itself about what failure is. At least we agree on one thing, however: Dick Fuld is an absolute, total disaster, both as a CEO and as a human being.
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