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We're All Fired

Trump, Wilder and the return of the celebrity boss.


It may be too early to call Jack "Neutron Jack" Welch out of retirement, but there are signs that America is ripe and ready for a big boss on a white horse.

Does America have no feelings? The weekly firings in Trump's boardroom and the popularity of similar survivalist reality shows seem to suggest the public not only tolerates public disposals, but gleefully craves them.

"What passes for reality TV, in which people are embarrassed and fired … has desensitized us to this foreign dimension of being fired," says John Adams, chairman and chief executive of Richmond-based ad firm The Martin Agency. "We say it's reality TV, but it's really not reality TV. When people get fired, it's a horrible thing."

In the aftermath of the dot-com bust, layoffs and firings were viewed with disdain. And less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, amid mass layoffs and turmoil in the airline industry, Southwest Airlines' CEO Herb Kelleher became a corporate hero when he announced the company would not, under any circumstances, lay off workers. Other companies followed suit. Even BusinessWeek commended the righteousness of the no-layoff policies.

"Now, in the aftermath of a national tragedy that economists say makes a recession and thousands of additional job cuts inevitable, their stances seem almost noble, an old-fashioned antidote to the make-the-numbers-or-else ethos pervading Corporate America," BusinessWeek's Michelle Conlin gushed.

When Enron's mountain of questionable accounting tricks and illegal shuffling across the corporate landscape came to light in 2002, the notion of aggressive CEOs took an even bigger hit. Getting on the cover of Forbes and BusinessWeek, as former General Electric chief executive Welch and Scott Paper's Al "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap did with regularity, was akin to drawing a bull's-eye on your back.

In Enron's wake, an anti-CEO sentiment washed over the public. Fortune magazine's Nicholas Varchaver wrote in November: "More than one [CEO] discovered that when the prosecutors came calling, having a high profile can turn out to be a disadvantage. ... When you've cooperated with endless media coverage that portrays you as omniscient, it becomes harder to argue that you didn't know what was going on at your own company."

Now the public is sending signals that it may be ready for the gallant return of our capitalistic heroes. Some say much of that zest can be attributed to the rise of Donald Trump and "The Apprentice." America's craving for celebrities could be held at bay for only so long, Adams says.

"While it can be interrupted by something like Enron or WorldCom," Adams says, America's craving for celebrity CEOs, as with all celebrities, "is probably a recurring tide of cultural phenomenon."

David Urban, a marketing professor and director of the Commonwealth Poll at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Public Policy, warns against making too much of "The Apprentice," though. The show's popularity has more to do with the success of previous reality TV programs such as the original "Survivor," he says. Does Trump's resurgence signal a newfound acceptance of all-for-profit CEOs?

"I don't think it's that deep," Urban says. "The business realm was one realm that the reality TV show had not penetrated. People could relate to it because a lot of people have been laid off or fired at work."

Perhaps there's a parallel in Richmond. Just a few years ago, Richmond was regularly lauded by magazines and trade journals as one of the best places in the country to live and do business. The prevailing sentiment was that Richmond was doing OK compared with many cities its size. But in November, Wilder swept into office, promising to save the city from the doldrums of crime, poverty and corruption — and he won by a landslide. Did the public's attitude change dramatically, or did Wilder tap into widespread angst that had been there all along?

"I think what happened here in Richmond was that there was a vacuum in leadership," says Robert Holsworth, a political science professor at VCU. "There is a general sense in the public that leadership is important in any organization, whether it be a business organization or a government organization."

In other words, Richmond was ready to get fired up. S

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