Faceless, or firebrand? What kinds of leaders are we looking for?

The November 12 issue of the Economist included a fascinating article on “The Cult of the Faceless Boss.” According to the article, the recent economic downturn has caused companies to reject flamboyant CEOs in favor of executives described as “humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls.”

If this trend continues, says the Economist, it is only a matter of time before somebody writes The Management Secrets of Uriah Heep: be ‘umble, be ever so ‘umble.”

The Economist deplores this trend. “In general,” says the article, “the corporate world needs its flamboyant visionaries and raging egomaniacs rather more than its humble leaders and corporate civil servants.”

I concur. In fact, I once wrote a speech to that effect, celebrating one of the founders of America’s energy industry, Ernest Whitworth Marland.

The speech was for Archie W. Dunham, chairman of ConocoPhillips. Marland had been one of the founders of ConocoPhillips, and the speech was delivered at a gala occasion held at Marland’s mansion in Ponca City, Oklahoma.

The speech speaks for itself:

Since we’re meeting in the Marland Mansion, I’d like to say a few words about Ernest Witworth Marland and his continuing influence on the energy industry.

In some ways, Marland was a caricature of an oil tycoon.

He came to Oklahoma in 1908 with not much more than a letter of credit and his own abundant self-confidence. By 1922, he controlled ten percent of the world’s oil reserves.

He was a fabulously rich man, and he wanted to enjoy the lifestyle of the rich and famous—complete with polo, fox hunting, and palatial mansions.

And so he did.  No polo clubs in Oklahoma? No problem. He introduced the sport.  No foxes for hunting? He imported them—and then hired a Master of the Hounds to coach the Oklahoma plainsmen on hunting etiquette. No palatial mansions? He built this magnificent house.

Some people today might consider his flashy lifestyle to be excessive, even vulgar.  But to do so would be to miss the point.

If Marland had been a man less driven, less self-assured, less contemptuous of obstacles—if, in short, he had not been the kind of man brash enough to build a palace in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie—then he would not have been an oil man; and he would not have laid the foundation of today’s energy business.

Marland was more than a wildcatter who struck it rich.  He was a visionary.

He was one of the first oil men to use seismic technology to discover new reserves of oil. The use of cutting-edge seismic technology—most recently 3-D imaging—characterizes ConocoPhillips today.

“Marland was also ahead of his time as an employer—offering numerous benefits to his employees. He pioneered company paid insurance, including eye care and dental care. He set the standard for the level of benefits that ConocoPhillips currently provides its employees.

“Finally, Marland was a philanthropist who gave generously to his community. The famous statue, Pioneer Woman, commissioned by Marland, remains a witness to his generosity.

“ConocoPhillips continues his tradition of philanthropy and of being a good corporate citizen in all the communities where we do business—both in the U.S., and in nearly 50 countries around the world.”

Faceless bosses? I’d take a firebrand like Ernest Whitworth Marland any day.

Hal Gordon is a freelance speechwriter based in Houston, Texas. His clients have ranged from President Reagan to Colin Powell. He writes blog, The Speechwriter’s Slant.

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