With the global rise of the celebrity CEO, some new stories are being told.
- By Michael SkapinkerMichael Skapinker is a columnist for the Financial Times.
Lee Iacocca said it best. In the introduction to the paperback edition of his massively best-selling 1984 autobiography, the erstwhile savior of Chrysler and symbol of American capitalism reflected on his book’s success: "After all, this is just a story about a kid from a good immigrant family who studied hard and worked hard, who had some big successes and some big disappointments, and who made out fine in the end because of the simple values he learned from his parents and teachers, and because he had the good luck to live in America."
There, in one sentence, is everything a triumphant account of a life in American business requires: the hardscrabble childhood, tempered by the parents and teachers who imparted the necessity of honest toil; the character-forging career setback; the ultimate triumph. There, too, are the twin heroes of the U.S. business bestseller: the humble CEO and America itself, the country that makes everything possible.
Iacocca’s latter-day followers have faithfully reproduced his model, glossing over awkward divorces and inconveniently prosperous childhoods to squeeze their lives into the same Horatio Alger narrative. In Bloomberg by Bloomberg, for example, Michael Bloomberg concedes that his mother’s family had some money but emphasizes his accountant father’s modest job keeping the books in a dairy. Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight from the Gut dispenses with the legendary General Electric CEO’s divorce from his first wife in a little over half a page: "Carolyn and I simply found ourselves on different paths." If it doesn’t fit in with the dream, it’s not part of the book.
But what dream do you embody if you’re not an American? Over the last two decades, with new markets springing up around the world, the celebrity CEO has become more than an American institution — and the CEO biography has gone global as well. Twenty-four years ago, Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, published perhaps the first example of the international business memoir, Made in Japan. In recent years, everyone from Abilio dos Santos Diniz, the manically overachieving Brazilian retail magnate, to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi founder of Grameen Bank and father of microcredit, has followed suit, inventing a new form of tycoon lit for the emerging-market set. In China, where the number of billionaires has shot up from just one in 1999 to 64 this year, inspirational business books line the walls of stores. The hugely popular translation of Straight from the Gut sold more than 600,000 copies there in its first year. Biographies of business moguls like the car-selling Tata family have become popular in India, too, as the country’s economy has boomed.
The American Dream, though, turns out to need some customizing for this new breed of Iacoccas. Now, the bootstraps belong to an entire nation: The aspiring billionaire must struggle with his country’s poverty and isolation rather than his own. America is still glorified — but it’s a far-off beacon and often a discouraging emblem of what cannot be accomplished at home. And the dream embodied in these books can at times seem to be the exact reverse of the American one: rising to the top in spite of one’s national circumstances, not because of them.
Morita’s account, like Iacocca’s, laid out the expectations. Morita describes his wealthy background ("I was born the first son and fifteenth-generation heir to one of Japan’s finest and oldest sake-brewing families"), which contrasts sharply with the catastrophes of living through World War II in Tokyo. In the early postwar days, Morita and his staff ran the company that would become Sony in an office so bomb-damaged that they had to hold up umbrellas indoors when it rained.
Many of the new generation of global business memoirists also acknowledge their privileged upbringings — while taking care to juxtapose their family’s wealth with the struggles faced by their country in general. "I was born wealthy," writes Ricardo Semler, author of Maverick and head of Semco, the Brazilian industrial group, which he inherited from his father, the immigrant son of a Viennese dentist. But, he points out, he began running Semco in the 1980s, Brazil’s "lost decade." "From 1986 to 1990, the country endured five economic shock plans, knocked three zeros off its currency twice and on two occasions changed it altogether," Semler writes.
Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the Indian IT group Infosys Technologies, is similarly frank about his background. In Imagining India, his 2008 book, Nilekani writes that his parents "were Brahmins who were educated and knew where the opportunities lay." All the same, he was not from one of the famous Indian business families, and when he arrived in Bombay to take up his first job in 1979, he had to share a tiny room with two others. For Nilekani, the "hum and thrum" of entrepreneurial India has to be set against its electricity problems, failing schools, lousy health care, and political tensions. It is easier, he confesses, to be optimistic about India when one is far away from it.
In terms of work culture, the foreign CEOs face issues no American executive would ever have to contend with. In Banker to the Poor, Yunus recalls having to speak with potential female customers through curtains, as they were not permitted to talk to men outside the family. More challenging than etiquette, however, is the fact that, in many of these countries, CEOs can encounter fierce opposition to the basic idea of entrepreneurship. American entrepreneurs might face investors who don’t understand their ideas or bosses who don’t recognize their brilliance. But everything in American business culture at large is on their side: The idea that creativity and innovation are the key to capitalistic success is ingrained in the culture. For the foreign aspirants, accomplishing some of the most basic aspects of expanding a business often meant confronting decades or even centuries of economic and social tradition.
Nilekani writes about the long history of Indian distrust of entrepreneurship, particularly the fierce opposition to the removal of protectionism by the "Bombay Club," a group of entrenched Indian business leaders who met during the economic upheavals of the early 1990s to try to keep out international trade. In the first days of Infosys, IT was a scorned subfield and computers were euphemistically called "ledger posting machines" in government reports out of fear that unions would react badly to what they conceived of as "job-eating machines." Like Nilekani, who was warned that start-ups would never work in India, Yunus was told his ideas were impossible. When he first tried to organize a loan on behalf of a group of poor stool-makers, he was dragged into a Kafkaesque debate with the bank manager over the justice of a system that only gives money to borrowers who can fill out a written application — in a country that had 75 percent illiteracy. "Professor, banking is not as simple as you think," the bank manager told him.
One thing CEOs worldwide share is a love for America. Semler kept a Boston subway token in his wallet as an emblem of his obsessive ambition to study at Harvard University (he was rejected twice, but eventually enrolled in a Harvard Business School program for established executives). When Nilekani extols the opportunities that India’s new outsourcing sectors provide to young, ambitious English-speakers, he can think of only one description for it, one that could sum up the aspirations embodied by the new class of global billionaires: "[T]his Indian industry," he writes, "has carved out a route to the American dream."