The ‘Shamanification’ of the Tech CEO

From fruit-only diets to dopamine fasting, Silicon Valley founders flaunt self-deprivation like a misguided pursuit of wellness. But there’s more to it.

“There’s a sort of cultural archetype against which leaders are both evaluating themselves and being evaluated,” said Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard sociologist and the dean of Harvard College. Khurana has studied how these archetypes change, both by tracking turnovers in historical datasets and through interviews with CEOs, search consultants, and boards of directors.

For decades, he explained, the archetypal CEO was “the organization man” (they were overwhelmingly men). Embodied in figures like Lew Platt of Hewlett-Packard or Michael Hawley of Gillette, the organization man was a conformer, a loyal subordinate who worked his way up in the company. A career bureaucrat, he rarely appeared on TV and never hired ghostwriters to write up his mythology. Many people in his company didn’t even recognize him.

By the 1980s and ’90s, organization men were dropping like poisoned cattle, replaced by shinier breeds. This was the era of Gates, Jobs, Welch, and Gerstner. Charisma became key. After Hewlett-Packard forced Lew Platt to resign in 1999, the head of the search committee explained to Khurana that they required something more elusive than Platt’s white-bread managerial skills: “tremendous leadership ability” and “the power to bring urgency to an organization.”

Why the shift from dependable gray suits to charisma?

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