Our Charismatic Ex-Mayor Sells His Stuff to C.E.O.’s

Leadership , by Rudolph Giuliani, with Ken Kurson. Miramax Books, 407 pages, $25.95.

Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs , by Rakesh Khurana. Princeton University Press, 295 pages, $29.95.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, with Air Force One out dawdling somewhere on the scenic route and the rest of us housebound, grieving, terror-struck, Mayor Giuliani took to the airwaves and delivered hope and comfort. Watching the Mayor’s press conferences-many of them impromptu and held under precarious circumstances-it was impossible not to think three things: He actually is in charge , and He will tell me the truth , and His compassion is complete and meaningful . It was a performance-though even to label it a “performance” may be unfair-that silenced his every last critic. The Mayor of a city many Americans regard with righteous delight as the modern Sodom had somehow inspired universal admiration; from the red-diaper Upper West Side all the way to the Bible Belt, he suddenly enjoyed the sort of esteem usually reserved for public figures who have been safely dead a generation.

Grotesque as it is to describe Sept. 11 as anyone’s good fortune, it’s instructive to remember the pre-9/11 Rudy and marvel at the transformation. On Sept. 10, Mr. Giuliani was a second-term Mayor who, through a pattern of capricious bullying, had largely worn out his welcome as the city’s grim-visaged superego. In his new book Leadership , he unconsciously indexes his own decline: During the 2000 Presidential election, he found himself greeting the campaign airplane for George W. Bush in Florida-alongside “Bo Derek, Wayne Newton, and others.” Looking back on it, that sounds about right. His health in jeopardy and his personal life puffing up tabloid headlines, the lame-duck Mayor had begged out of his much-anticipated Celebrity Deathmatch with Hillary Clinton. No one was even bothering to handicap his political future. That was then; nowadays, there’s excited speculation about an appointment to head the new Department of Homeland Security, or even a run for the Presidency.

Like Rudy himself, Leadership has gone through a dramatic shift in fortune. What started out as a Pat Riley–type “as-told-to” pep talk, targeted at corporate managers and destined for the remainder bin, is now an inevitable headline-generator and probable blockbuster best-seller. The first chapter and the last contain riveting accounts of his 9/11 heroics; in between, it’s mostly slogan-bearing pap. A man like Mr. Giuliani has only so much banality in him, and the bloated middle of Leadership seems determined to suck up every ounce of it. Nonetheless, the good Rudy-and not just the gritty municipal Churchill that emerged on 9/11, but the man who seems genuinely to hate the pandering euphemism and possesses, against all the odds of contemporary political life, a decent inner gyroscope- that Rudy prevails for chapters at a time, and the book is therefore often a pretty diverting read.

But isn’t it built on bad faith? Leadership is designed not just to bathe the old Rudy in the new Rudy’s glow, but to wipe much of the old Rudy from the memory banks entirely. To help sell the book, which also covers his pre-9/11 public life, Mr. Giuliani is forced to insist on a seamless continuity. “The events of September 11 affected me more deeply than anything I have ever experienced,” he confesses, “but the idea that I somehow became a different person on that day-that there was a pre-September 11 Rudy and a wholly other post-September 11 Rudy-is not true. I was prepared to handle September 11 precisely because I was the same person who had been doing his best to take on challenges my whole career.” Can he really want us to hark back to pre-sanctification days? “Start Small With Success,” “Always Sweat the Small Stuff,” “Reflect, Then Decide,” counsels Rudy the bromide-dispensing corporate cheerleader. What about harass the downtrodden, litigate mindlessly, publicly torment your own appointees-and then hog the glory?

For a while, of course, Mayor Giuliani did seem to speak on behalf of a forgotten civility and common sense. Then he demolished Ruth Messinger to win a second term, and the second-term Giuliani rapidly became the victim of his own quality-of-life successes. The last guy run out of town is always the sheriff mean enough to have cleaned it up: Once again comfortable on New York City streets, the professional middle class felt free to start chafing at their Mayor’s more peculiar antics. And Mr. Giuliani lived down to their expectations: With Travis Bickle’s New York suddenly chirping along to “Hakuna Matada,” and nothing worthy left to fire him up, our Rudy set about mindlessly demonizing anything in his path: street vendors, Patrick Dorismond, the Brooklyn Museum. When Mr. Giuliani convened his ludicrous “decency” panel, all the mugged liberals who voted for him felt mugged a second time over.

But there’s a more egregious fudge at the heart of Leadership : the idea that the day-to-day task of a New York Mayor-bringing a hopelessly enormous bureaucracy to heel-is somehow of a piece with facing down terrorist threats and staving off mass hysteria. He dutifully tries to insist that this is so (“The best way to assure that your staff … feel that someone is leading the way is to show that you’re as focused as ever on the details. During the weeks following September 11, I remained as committed to the details as ever”), and yet he can’t help but register the contradiction. “Leadership does not simply happen. It can be taught, learned, developed,” he insists, only to admit a few pages later: “The truth is, however, that a big part of leadership is mysterious. Inspiration must be taken wherever and whenever it comes, and sources of strength appear in unexpected places.”

The component of leadership that can’t be taught-that mysterious inner reservoir that overflowed from Rudy Giuliani on 9/11-is known as charisma . Max Weber coined the modern word: “There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma),” Weber wrote in “Politics as a Vocation,” “the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership.” Charisma is something unbidden, primitive. And Rudy is selling it to corporate America just as its presence in corporate America has been revealed as pernicious.

Another book, one that will almost certainly not be appearing on the best-seller lists along with Leadership -but ought to, if only as antidote-is Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs , by Rakesh Khurana, a young Harvard academic. As Mr. Khurana patiently explains, the rise of the charismatic C.E.O. has been, on balance, a terrible trend for American business.

Mr. Khurana reminds us that in the early stages of American corporate capitalism, ownership and management were one and the same. Founders created firms, and they owned and ran them. With the development of the railroads and mass markets, the owner-managers had to sell stock to finance expansion. Over time, as ownership transferred to shareholders, firm management was handed over to trained professionals. We evolved from a period of buccaneer capitalism, populated by outsize robber barons, to a period of managerial capitalism, presided over by the gray flannel suits. The question raised by the 90’s C.E.O. star system was this: Could we repersonalize American business? Could we somehow combine the outsize, swashbuckling egomania of the founders with the transparency and stability of the mature corporation and developed markets?

Chastely setting aside the juicy headlines, Mr. Khurana studied the situation empirically, and concluded the answer is an emphatic No . In their ghost-written autobiographies, C.E.O.’s have justified their ludicrous, pharaoh-like paydays with talk about supply and demand, meritocracy and shareholder value-but as it turns out, there’s no steady correlation between any of the these. Despite all the blather about Adam Smith, the selection process for the outsider C.E.O.-the superstar brought from outside the ranks of a company to act as its savior-resembles an ancient potlatch more than a free market: In the rarefied world of interlocking corporate boards, the process is rife with favor-trading and back-scratching. In the end, decisions are quick, subjective and arbitrary. (It doesn’t help that the descriptions for C.E.O. in the job searches are hopelessly contradictory; one adjective seems best suited to a network anchorman, the next to Jackson Pollock.) In the end, a glitzy résumé is brought in to please Wall Street analysts and the financial press; and very often it all ends in disaster.

Restlessly mobile, the charismatic C.E.O. will have none of the “loyalty in exchange for lifetime employment and a gold watch” model immortalized by William Whyte. He’s an entirely new personality type: On Squawk Box , he’s suavely telegenic; in the office, he’s a mood-driven monster. Does it matter? In an era of poaching, job-hopping and exploding salaries, he doesn’t stick around for long anyway. Mr. Khurana’s exhaustive book is the perfect occasion to reflect on a contradiction at the heart of the 90’s boom: On the one hand, free markets were exalted as a universal panacea, primarily because they are totally impersonal-that is, a friction-free, maximally efficient medium of exchange. But at the same time, the C.E.O. star system repersonalized American business to the max.

So, as nice as it is to have back the old first-term Rudy-tough, graceful, intelligent-his book of advice is ill-timed: We should be hoping for the re-depersonalization of American business life. As Mr. Khurana points out, charisma only becomes necessary in times of crisis. It’s our great privilege in America not to need charismatic leaders, but rather to make do with inane ones. So let us welcome the day when charisma is once again confined to the E! channel, when it’s once again suspect in the boardroom-and in politics, utterly unnecessary.

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Our Charismatic Ex-Mayor Sells His Stuff to C.E.O.’s