Vilifying CEO’s

The latest dustup surrounding BP CEO Tony Hayward involved his weekend excursion to the Isle of Wight off the shores of England to watch his yacht “Bob” compete in a race.  Many people were upset and quick to criticize his trip.  Some Gulf Coast residents took it as another sign that he was uncaring and heartless.  White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, chimed in with criticism.  To me that was a bit hypocritical given that his boss, President Obama, and Vice President Biden found time on Saturday to play a round of golf near Washington.

A BP spokesman felt it necessary to make a statement that it was the CEO’s first day off since the accident occurred on April 20, 2010.  I recognize there is a difference between playing golf a few miles away from home and traveling to Europe.  Two things to keep in mind however… this isn’t President Obama’s first vacation since this disaster; he spent Memorial Day weekend in Chicago with his family.  Furthermore, Tony Hayward’s family lives in England, not along the Gulf Coast.

The explosion and subsequent oil leak by the Deepwater Horizon rig is a disaster of epic proportion.  Both the BP and the government should be doing everything they can to stop the oil leak, clean up the mess and restore the environment as best they can.

But at the same time… what is the expectation of President Obama and Tony Hayward?  Should they don a pair of waders and be sucking up oil in the marshes?  Maybe they should strap on some scuba gear and go plug the hole.

These are not reasonable expectations. You may not personally like either man, but both of President Obama and Tony Hayward are chief executives.  Their roles should be strategic, not boots on the ground. They need to put good people in charge, monitor progress and get out of the way.

I don’t have a problem with the President or any CEO taking time off.  Everyone needs a break.  Even soldiers who are in a war zone need time off to be refreshed.  If you never have a day off, it won’t be long before you crash and burn… whether you’re a soldier, a laborer, the President, or a CEO.

In my opinion, the criticism of Tony Hayward is indicative of the current viewpoint held by many politicians and journalists.  There is a not-so-subtle message that business is bad and government is good.  It’s how the chief executives of the two organizations primarily involved in the crisis are treated very differently.  One is getting a necessary break, and the other is an uncaring scoundrel. Unfortunately, the vilifying of business executives is not isolated to BP.  The leaders of Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and other major oil companies have become the favorite punching bags and villains of choice.

You may have little sympathy for CEO’s and wonder why this concerns you.  It matters because it’s the CEO’s and entrepreneurs who create wealth in our society.  Government does not create wealth… successful businesses do.

Microsoft made Bill Gates the richest man in the world, but he wasn’t the only one.   His former partner Paul Allen is also a billionaire.  Microsoft also made millions for scores of other investors and employees.  Government doesn’t make people wealthy, except for those leaders who profit from their position.  Take for example,  Ilhem Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, who’s 11-year old son recently bought $44 million of real estate in Dubai, even though his father’s annual salary is a mere $228,000 and wasn’t known to be wealthy before assuming office.

The attacks against successful and wealthy people are creating a class warfare mentality. It is resulting in a presumption that you only get rich or successful by taking advantage of someone else or by being dishonest.  It also fosters the idea that wealth redistribution is necessary to counterbalance the injustice.  The challenge with a redistributionist philosophy is who gets to decide how much is too much.  In the U.S., you may be poor in comparison to the likes of Bill Gates, but to the 80% of the world that lives on less than $10 per day, any American is wealthy. 

You may believe in socialism, but I don’t.  I believe in the American system of capitalism and free enterprise. I am not aware of any country in the world that has created the standard of living for such a broad class of people as the United States.  It’s not perfect, but neither is any other system.  I doubt I’ll ever be a CEO of a major corporation, or make it on a list of the rich and famous.  However, I will defend our system which allows me, and anyone else, the opportunity.

I don’t believe in a laissez-faire attitude towards leadership.  Great opportunity must be accompanied by great responsibility.  Greedy, dishonest and immoral executives exist, and they should be fired.  There are also power-hungry, ruthless and immoral politicians, and they should be kicked out of office.

In many countries, cultural warfare is ethnic.  We must be careful in America that we don’t create a class war based on socioeconomic status.  Be wary of anyone who tries to denigrate any group of people, whether it is by race, religion, gender or position.  If people are successful in vilifying CEO’s, know that the door is opened to malign anyone, and you may find yourself under attack.

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