CEO Showdown: Tony Dungy Vs. Carol Bartz

By Derek Simon | February 04, 2009 AAA

Not long ago, I read an article by Henry Blodget essentially applauding the appointment of Carol Bartz as the new CEO of Yahoo! (Nasdaq:YHOO). Specifically, Blodget liked Bartz's no-nonsense approach. "She's not afraid to break eggs," he wrote on Silicon Alley Insider. Thankfully, Yahoo is not a dairy farm - yet.

Two things struck me about Blodget's observations. First, as the co-host of Yahoo's "Tech Ticker", is it wise for Blodget to be commenting on one of his employers? Isn't that a conflict of interest? The same type of thing that got him banned from the securities industry back in 2003? Second, I'm intrigued by Blodget's apparent belief that in order to be an effective leader, one must be tough and outspoken, perhaps even mean... which made me think of Tony Dungy, who recently stepped down as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

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Unbridled Becoming
Dungy left the NFL with an overall coaching record of 148-79 (a 65.1 percent winning average), as well as league marks for consecutive playoff appearances (10), consecutive 12-win seasons (six) and average regular-season victories (10.7). He was also the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl, a feat he accomplished in 2007. Yet, by all accounts, and despite all of his success, Dungy was a nice guy. The last person one would expect to open a meeting by asking his employees why he shouldn't "fire the whole lot of them" (as Bartz is reputed to have done on more than one occasion).

Now, I'm not saying that such abruptness makes Bartz a bad leader or a horrible person. Although, if she starts remodeling her new office with gingerbread and candy, all bets are off. The bigger point is this: what constitutes good corporate leadership? (Is your CEO a bad leader? Read our related article Pages From The Bad CEO Playbook to learn more.)

Nice Guys (And Gals) Finish First?
David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo once attempted to find out. In their 2002 book "Unnatural Leadership: Going Against Intuition and Experience to Develop 10 New Leadership Instincts", the pair identified - surprise, surprise - 10 "unnatural acts" (well, now, that is a surprise) that they contend most effective 21st century leaders regularly commit. Common to them all is being nice.

"Take a look at the new CEOs that have recently taken the helm of some of America's largest, most prestigious corporations," Dotlich writes. "It seems that, in almost every case, the 'nice guy' is winning the coveted leadership spot."

Among the examples Dotlich and Cairo provide in their book are: Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric (NYSE:GE), 2002-present; William Clay Ford, Jr., CEO of Ford (NYSE:F), 2001-2006; William C. Weldon, Chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), 2002-present; Samuel J. Palmisano, CEO of IBM (NYSE:IBM), 2002-present; and G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., CEO of General Motors (NYSE:GM), 2000-present.

Of course, it doesn't exactly make the case for nice guys when Ford and General Motors are on the verge of collapse and GE is trading at a fraction of what it did when Immelt assumed command. But at least those companies still have a pulse, something that can't be said for Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns and other former blue-chippers.

Bottom Line
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Rather than worrying about whether or not a particular CEO is nasty or nice, company board members (and investors) might be better served by focusing, instead, on his or her competency - or lack thereof. (Read Is Your CEO Street Savvy? for clues that may help determine whether or not an executive has what it takes.)

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