I’m inspired by great leadership, something that’s alarmingly in short supply in America. I’ve previously written about the poor leadership running America’s major corporations, and I’ve highlighted some of the incompetents of the Biden Administration. (see here, here, and here.) Last week two more CEO pieces of work reared their privileged and clueless heads and immediately qualified for inductions into the Starkman Approved CEO Hall of Shame.
I will never again look at Eames or Aeron chairs, a Noguchi Table, or pass a Design Within Reach store and not immediately think of Andi Owen, CEO of MillerKnoll, the western Michigan-based furniture manufacturer and retailer headquartered in Zeeland, about 25 miles southwest of Grand Rapids. Count me among the more than six million viewers who watched in disbelief a video portion of a Zoom call where Owen addressed employee concerns about having their bonuses eliminated.
As the 75-minute call neared its conclusion, Owen told employees to “treat each other well” and “be kind, respectful.” But her warm and fuzzy demeanor gave way when the issue of employees possibly not getting bonuses was raised.
“Don’t ask about what are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus?” Owen snapped. “Get the damn $26 million. Spend your time and your effort thinking about the $26 million we need and not thinking about what you’re going to do if you don’t get a bonus. Alright? Can I get some commitment for that?”
Lowering her voice, Owens said, “I would appreciate that.”
But she wasn’t quite done.
“I had an old boss who said to me one time, ‘You can visit pity city, but you can’t live there.’ So people, leave pity city. Let’s get it done,” she instructed and then wished call participants a great day. Portions of Owen’s call can be seen in the accompanying CNN segment.
Meanwhile, in Utah, James Clarke, CEO of a company called Clearlink, held a Zoom call to discuss his policy reversal requiring employees to return to the office. According to Vice, Clarke as recently as last October said he had “no plans” to mandate in-office work and some employees had been hired with the understanding the company was “remote-first.”
Clarke admonished employees about the need to show greater commitment to his company, and questioned those who he believed weren’t capable, like working mothers.
“Breadwinning mothers were hit the very hardest by this pandemic. Many of you have tried to tend your own children and in doing so also manage your demanding work schedules and responsibilities. And while I know you’re doing your best… one could argue this path is neither fair to your employer, nor fair to those children,” Clarke said.
Clarke also talked about the need for self-sacrifice.
“I’ve sacrificed, and those of you that are here have sacrificed greatly to be here as well—to be away from your family,” he said. “I learned from one of our leaders that, in the midst of hearing this message, [someone] went out and sold their family dog,” Clarke said.
Video of Clarke’s Zoom rant was removed from the internet after Clearlink reportedly filed a copyright complaint, arguing the video was an internal matter. However, Vice obtained and re-posted an edited version of the footage, which can be found here.
Videos of Owen’s and Clarke’s virtuoso Zoom performances went viral, and there was much outrage, particularly with Owens, given the known disparity in pay and bonuses she receives, and those of her employees.
Clearlink is privately-owned so Clarke’s compensation isn’t publicly known. Glamour Biz pegs his net worth at $10 million, which is less than I’d imagine given that he heads a private investment firm claiming various successes, including companies in the pet industry. Clarke founded Clearlink in 2001 but sold it and then reacquired the company in February of last year. Clarke appears to have removed his LinkedIn profile since last week’s notoriety as media links to it says there is no such page.
Without exception, the social media outrage attributed Owen’s and Clarke’s lack of empathy and sense of entitlement to the disparity in compensation they earn and what they pay their corporate servants. More likely, their lack of empathy and sense of entitlement is how they achieved their successes.
Lacking empathy and narcissism are character traits of psychopaths. While many immediately associate psychopaths with murderers and the violence prone, research shows that many persons with psychopathic tendencies land in the corner office.
A landmark 2010 study concluded that there were at least three times as many psychopaths in CEO or executive roles than the general population. Researchers in 2016 concluded that while one in 100 people in the general community and one in five people in the prison system are considered psychopathic, these traits are common in the upper echelons of the corporate world, with a prevalence of between 3% and 21%. The researchers coined the term ‘successful psychopath,’ which they characterized as “high-flyers with psychopathic traits such as insincerity, a lack of empathy or remorse, egocentric, charming and superficial.”
Tellingly, Owen was quite charming throughout most of her Zoom video and only lost it when concerns were expressed about reduced or eliminated bonuses. MillerKnoll’s response to Owen’s outburst suggested she had no genuine remorse. Kris Marubio, MillerKnoll’s PR person, argued the clip of Owen losing it was taken out of context.
“Andi fiercely believes in this team and all we can accomplish together and will not be dissuaded by a 90-second clip taken out of context and posted on social media,” Marubio told Motherboard.
Marubio’s LinkedIn profile says she previously worked at the Gap, where Owen worked for 25 years. “I love crafting a brand narrative that makes consumers smile and employees proud,” Marubio says. Marubio lists her location as Chicago, about 160 miles southwest of MillerKnoll’s Michigan headquarters.
Clearlink spokesman Layne Watson told Vice that the company’s return to work policy would allow it to achieve its collective goals.
“We look forward to having these team members join us at our new world-class Global Headquarters in Draper, UT and appreciate the efforts of all of our committed team members–which includes those who work in office and those who will continue to work remotely–as we accomplish our best work together,” Watson told Vice.
There are some who justify the behavior exhibited by Owen and Clarke as being reflective of the pressures CEOs are under.
“Many CEOs are really frustrated and angry and tired,” Peter Rahbar, a New York-based lawyer who advises companies and executives on employment issues, told the Wall Street Journal, adding that he’s hearing bosses privately make similar remarks to Owen’s. “They just want things to go back to the way it was, with employee engagement, commitment and being back in the office.”
I’m doubtful that Rahbar has ever admonished his clients about not living in “pity city,” and I’m near certain that MillerKnoll’s and Clearlink’s spokespersons didn’t dare suggest to Owen and Clarke their behaviors were despicable and indefensible.
CEOs tend to surround themselves with people who will tell them how great they are. This is especially true when it comes to their compensations.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO pay has skyrocketed 1,460% since 1978 and top executives were paid 399 times as much as a typical worker in 2021. Compensation of the typical worker grew by just 18.1% from 1978 to 2021.
If entitlement is symptomatic of psychopathic behavior, it’s readily apparent that researchers have grossly underestimated how rampant it is in the upper echelons of corporate America.