CEOs' personal identities are inseparable from their companies
“You’ve really put a big investment in our country. We appreciate it very much, Tim Apple,” Donald Trump said as he commended Apple CEO Tim Cook at an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board on Wednesday. This hilarious slip of the tongue caused Tim Cook to change his Twitter name to “Tim” with the Apple logo next to his name, according to a Thursday CNBC report, as well as his official profile. The meme volcano erupted with references to well-known entrepreneurs ‘Bill Microsoft’ and ‘Elon Tesla,’ as well as colonial forebears ‘George America’ and ‘Ben Electricity.’ Technically, Elon’s surname should be a hyphenated PayPal-Tesla-SpaceX, but let us not get too pedantic. This is not the first time Trump has flubbed a CEO’s name in a corporate Freudian slip; last March he introduced Marilyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin as “Marilyn Lockheed.”
While unintentional, Trump has highlighted that in the age of the entrepreneur and corporate personhood, founders’ and executives’ identities are enmeshed in the companies they command, especially in the tech sector. This has become completely natural, to the point that we do not think about it until someone like Trump points it out in a way that is too obvious to ignore. “Isn’t it more important that Cook works at Apple than that his last name is Cook?,” asked the author of a Mar. 7 Slate article. Indeed, for most people who don’t know Cook personally, his profession is more important than his name, because we have more interaction with his products and his company than with him as an individual.
The positive side of this association is that corporate leaders can inspire employees and the public through personal charisma and a spirit of innovation. Contemporary business leaders must be dynamic and have strong public speaking skills. Through a mastery those abilities, they become their brands. A Feb. 26 Forbes article on how tech companies are influencing corporate culture said, “companies must create vibrant cultures that make employees proud.” With low unemployment, workers are looking for jobs they can identify with, and charismatic tech CEOs provide that. Taking this idea to a bizarre extreme, a June 2018 Bloomberg piece describes laid-off Tesla workers singing Elon Musk’s praises on Twitter: “Thanks for the opportunity, Elon! Eye on the mission. Will always be proud to say I worked for Tesla,” gushed one former employee. While the idea of professionals being happy after losing their jobs is strange, any company that inspires this level of devotion and belief in its goals has achieved something meaningful.
Inspiration leads to continuity. Thriving in a ‘cult of personality’ breeds future leaders who are able to both keep the brand’s identity and integrate themselves into it. At Apple, Steve Jobs’s turtlenecked keynote speeches were as emblematic of the brand as any of its products. When he became too sick to work and subsequently passed away in 2011, Tim Cook replaced him as CEO because he had been at Apple nearly 15 years and fit with the company culture bred under Jobs. In many effective companies, executive leadership functions like a family, so it is easy to imagine ‘Steve Apple’ passing the mantle to younger brother ‘Tim.’ This gives companies a continuous brand identity, in the literal sense.
The negative side is that when the identity of a massive company which employs thousands is bound up in that of a fallible or untruthful person, individual mistakes reflect poorly on the organization as a whole. When Jeff Bezos denied lewd photo allegations and announced his divorce, Amazon shares fell roughly 2 percent, according to a Feb. 8 Entrepreneur article. While this did not cause investors long-term concern, it exemplified the blurring line between private life and economic activity for corporate celebrities. That puts a certain pressure to be perfect, or at least, to hide one’s mistakes, on the shoulders of leaders. From a moral standpoint, if corporations are to be regarded as people, we should hold those who run them accountable for their personal behavior. In the eyes of the law, corporations function as people, distinct but not separate from the individuals who run them. However, the arrogance or misconduct of chief executives can affect an entire company, down to its independent contractors. Nearly two years after the ousting of problematic CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber is still struggling to clean up its brash reputation caused by the sexual harassment of employees and customers, according to a Mar. 3 New York Times article.
The confluence of individual leadership and corporate identity is not necessarily something we need to change, but a reality we should be aware of. The values we emphasize in business should not define our public policy, and what that says about our country demands further thought. When we apply cult-of-personality values to the political sphere, valuing them above facts and policy analysis, demagogues seize control. However, in tech, it is often less important to address the facts of today than to imagine what could be tomorrow and work backwards. The imaginative, dynamic leader who can think this way becomes synonymous with their company.
America has evolved as an individualistic nation, for the most part placing individuals rather than group movements as the makers of history. We reference eras by their Presidents and pop culture icons. Today, CEOs and tech moguls have joined that circle of icons. When President Trump called Tim Cook “Tim Apple,” he touched on a neoliberal current in which personal identity is inseparable from that of a corporation. Trump himself is a part of this current — at least his companies bear his own last name.