The noble calling of CEOs

Mar 22, 2012
<p><em>Ian Williams</em> recognizes a cry for attention when he hears one</p>

Even the UK prime minister and the US president have problems with the vaulting ambition and augmenting vaults of top executives.

But is it possible we have it all wrong? That what afflicts CEOs is not greed – which would be gross – but rather a hunger for recognition, which is almost touching?

After all, treated as Lords of the Universe while in office, once retired, chief executives become just more boring tellers of corporate war stories on the country club links; they need money to establish their status!

But there are other ways they can get the recognized eminence they crave, notwithstanding the clause in the constitution that states, ‘No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States’.

The desire for titular recognition is rooted in American history, which is one reason why so many worthies maintain their functional titles long after they have left the jobs that entitled them: governor, senator, ambassador – even president – stay attached, limpet-like, to their names.

Something must be done, however, for ex-captains of industry to satisfy the need for due honor and recognition without their having to amass huge piles of cash to prop up their egos. And the term ‘captain’ would presume on military prerogatives.

Benjamin Franklin tended to agree with the great jurist Blackstone that ‘the distinction of rank and honors’ was at least plausible, if not strictly necessary, ‘in order to reward such as are eminent for their services to the public, in a manner the most desirable to individuals, and yet without burthen to the community; exciting thereby an ambitious yet laudable ardor, and generous emulation in others.’

In the UK, nobility is no longer usually hereditary, which was certainly Franklin’s objection and what the Founding Fathers wanted to stop. Any constitution flexible enough to endow corporations with a soul can surely update such outdated prohibitions.

Strangely, the US has a little-known hereditary Society of Cincinnati composed of descendants of Revolutionary War officers. They are entitled to wear its ribbon and medal on their military uniforms and claim ‘federal civil rank equivalent to a warrant officer pursuant to Congressional Order’. These descendants keep a low-enough profile to excite any conspiracy theorist worth his or her salt, but seem to be accepted.

So how about a Society of Croesus to represent CEOs in their struggle for a living wage? The precise title they or their descendants would bear is open to discussion. We could use the name of one of the great entrepreneurs – Edison, say, or Jobs. I suppose Kozlowski might send the wrong message, although Conrad has a stately titular ring to it.

On balance, however, I think ‘boss’ has a pioneering frontier ring to it and even the AFL is unlikely to object to its usage, since in its perverse mirror universe it is pejorative, which should add to its luster among the right-thinking people the Croesus Society members might want to impress.

We will have to assume the trickle-up theory, of course, that when thus embossed CEOs would be happy with less cash, but since trickle-down worked so well, there shouldn’t be too many problems, should there?

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