Bad boy CEOs

Is that a thing? Are there seriously bad boy CEOs out there and should you invest or avoid companies run by them?

Article updated: 10 September 2018 9:00am Author: Michael Baxter

From a certain perspective, I am a bad boy, or worse I am a psychopath who deserves to spend eternity in hell. Why? Because from time to time, indeed rather often, I have been known to murder spiders. Don’t get me wrong; I do it out of fear; and if it is an especially large, terrifying looking one, I get a sense of self-satisfaction. If God is a spider, I am going to hell. Come to think of it, if God is a spider I may not like his idea of heaven.

Bad depends — it depends on your sense of perspective.

From the point of view of some hapless Apple employee who ventured into a lift with Steve Jobs, gave an awkward answer to a question, and was promptly fired, the iconic Apple boss was bad. Indeed, Jobs himself, notorious for firing staff he met in the lift, got fired by an Apple board, exasperated by his antics. But anyone who had invested in the company when the so-called bad boy CEO returned in July 1997, and then held, Jobs was a magnificent CEO — shares are up roughly 250 times since then.

There are different types of bad: there are CEOs who are, well let’s say they're over flirtatious and leave it at that. There are CEOs famous for their tempers, who F and Blind at customers, analysts or shareholders. There are CEOs who commit fraud. Or there are just CEOs who are bad boys because they are bad CEOs and happen to be male.

The study

According to a PwC study, between the years 2012 and 2016, no less than 5.3 per cent of CEOs were fired for ethical lapses — often involving encounters with the opposite sex. It does seem that these days bad behaviour is more likely to result in the big boot. As Kristin Rivera and Per-Ola Karlsson said in the PwC study: “In the late 20th century, even the most serious, large scale, and widely publicised cases of corporate misbehaviour rarely led to dismissal of the CEO.” 

Part of the problem may relate to a key characteristic of a successful CEO. According to Elena Botelho and Kim Powell, authors of the book ‘The CEO Next Door’, one thing successful CEOs have in common is the ability to make quick and decisive decisions — and it is less important whether those decisions are right. Maybe the personality type that is most suitable for quick decision making is often — but not always — predisposed to so called bad behaviour.

It’s important to note, by the way, that if the aforementioned PwC survey is right, 95 per cent of CEOs are actually rather well-behaved boys and girls.

Rude to analysts, divers and smoking weed

Elon Musk has not endeared himself to many people of late, and for those of us who consider ourselves fans, because we support what he is trying to do, this creates a problem. Given how Mr Musk apparently works extraordinary hours, I am tempted to say he needs a holiday. Then again watch this video, his interview with Joe Rogan, the one where he smokes weed, he does not come across as so loopy to me — far from it, and maybe we should focus on what he says about burning fossil fuels.

By the way, Musk also revealed in the Rogan interview that he has cracked the problem of creating a link between the brain and computer — a Neuralink, suggesting that the best case scenario for humanity is “we effectively merge with AI.”

Another CEO who does not always come across as altogether polite, is Michael O’Leary. Having never met the man, I have no idea whether the face the Ryanair CEO displays to the press hides a super nice persona in private, but whether his somewhat unorthodox approach to PR will pay decent dividends in the long run, remains to be seen.


Then there is the CEO who commits fraud, and perhaps ends up in jail for his sins — think Worldcom’s boss Bernard Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, boss at Enron who died while awaiting a decision on his prison sentence. Or there is Conrad Black, the man behind Hollinger, who once owned the Telegraph, and spent 78 months in prison — the list goes on.


I am not sure how much the way certain bankers got away with their greed and unpleasant practices explains the current popular backlash against the establishment. Certainly, Nigel Farage, is never shy to criticise the way banks were apparently rewarded for bad behaviour.

It’s a tricky one this: banks were bailed out post 2008 because one of the lessons of the 1930s is that when we see a widespread collapse of banks, the money supply contracts, and we get a Great Depression, and who knows, what else: a world war maybe. And subsequent regulation, such as MiFID II and open banking is partially designed to reduce the reliance of the global economy on a small number of banks.

I am no fan of greedy bankers and have long argued that inequality is one of the most important issues of the age, but can’t help but feel some use a popular discontent over bankers as a ruse to push unrelated political issues.

Sweat shops

I have the biggest problem with CEOs who treat staff as commodities who deserve little in the way of rights — sweat shops are not just phenomenons of emerging markets or indeed 3rd world countries. Some working practices in the UK are simply appalling — I think you can take a guess concerning the companies I refer to. Maybe the new ‘Harrods of the high street’ can set an example. This takes us to the question of ethical investing — maybe shareholders can make a difference.

And this takes me to a company that I have long waxed lyrical about as an investment opportunity; which has seen its share price rise 300-fold since the dotcom crash.

Still, there is no doubt a cure for bad behaviour lurking in the Amazon rainforest.

These views are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees

Michael Baxter portrait photo
Michael Baxter

Economics Commentator

Michael is an economics, investment and technology writer, known for his entertaining style. He has previously been a full-time investor, founder of a technology company which was floated on the NASDAQ, and a director of a PR company specialising in IT.

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