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Rule Breaker Mailbag: Is Corporate Leadership Really as Important as the Fool Says?

By Motley Fool Staff - Jul 20, 2017 at 5:33PM

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Listener Gerry questions the correlation between the management style at the top and the bottom line for investors.

In this segment from Rule Breaker Investing, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner attempts to answer a Foolish investor who is skeptical that the leadership ability and style of CEOs and executive committees can be used to predict if a company will be a good investment. While David wants to give both sides of this argument some airtime, he does see the impact of visionary, rule-breaking leaders as key to the successes of some of the modern era's best companies.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on May 31, 2017.

David Gardner: This is an email that came in from Gerry Lynch. Gerald Lynch. Appreciated this one.

Gerry, you said: "Dear David, The Motley Fool's approach to stock analysis has been profitable for me." -- well, I'm glad to hear that -- "I, however, continue to be skeptical of the importance you place in the CEO's or executive committee's leadership abilities. The supposed strong correlation between the leader's management style and the appreciation [of] the stock does not hold up over the long run," Gerry writes.

He goes on analyzing, for example, large-cap companies which have been around a long time. "Think Johnson & Johnson (JNJ 0.80%). Can all the variables which explain the success of that corporation be reduced to the personality of a few individuals at the top of the organization? Surely the global, political, economic upheavals, often unforeseen, make a far greater impact on the fate of an individual company than does the personality of the CEO. Bottom line: Do you assert that the millions of daily decisions made by thousands of individuals in the organization are primarily the results of following the charismatic vision of the great leaders? It sounds like the fallacy that drives a cult, not a corporation.

Final point. Recent history of the British Empire attributes less and less importance of the personalities of the royals or the parliamentary politicians. Indeed, the success of the British is better explained by the degree to which they allowed local leaders in far-flung colonies to act with a high degree of autonomy." Signed, Gerald Lynch.

Love the email. Love the thinking. I'm going to speak out of both sides of my mouth, because that's what I do a lot of the time, here, on this podcast. And it's not because I want to leave anybody on the horns of a dilemma or I, myself, don't have a particular opinion. It's that I want to show both sides, because often both sides are present.

So really quickly, here, Gerry. First of all, I am absolutely of the school -- and I think I remember this from my one reading of War and Peace -- I believe that Tolstoy, in his own mentality, [believed] that had Napoleon not come along, it all still would have played out. French domination. Revolution. World domination. Failure. It still was going to happen. The movement was there. Too many minds were focused that way.

And that was Tolstoy's view of history -- that it's not about the Great Man theory of history -- that one individual man or woman really makes everything happen but, rather, often it comes about through cultures and movements. And it might be that one person is inspired or rises above, and certainly has an effect, but it was going to happen anyway.

So I want to say, first of all, that I generally think that way about great companies. I think that Google came along at the right time. Had it not been Google, it would have been somebody else. Well, really it kind of replaced Yahoo! in a lot of ways, which was the pre-Google Google. So clearly internet search was bound to happen, as was e-commerce with Amazon, and the list goes on.

However, I think we can also recognize that it was this company, not that one. As I've sometimes pointed out, it's Amazon, not that has ended up being the big winner and the big player. And you know what? I think that is greatly to do with the fact that Jeff Bezos has run Amazon. Or Steve Jobs founded Apple.

So I think what I want to say to you, to try to tie these things together, is that on the one hand, I agree with you. The Great Man theory of history is not a great one. I think it's more about movements. On the other hand, for companies that are early stage -- that are entrepreneur-driven, that are visionary -- it was absolutely critical that that company had Jeff Bezos, or Howard Schultz who started Starbucks, or Elon Musk.

It was absolutely critical that those companies had those people and those people, in a lot of ways, explain the returns that we've benefited from -- we who've been patient with those people and their companies over time -- and have gotten a good deal richer because of our patience.

So what I'm saying is Johnson & Johnson -- I don't even know who the CEO is today, or who it's been for the last 40 years. And to tell you the truth, I don't really know the history of the company. I don't know who Johnson & Johnson were. But for more modern day, contemporary companies, I do know the founders and in many cases I know them because they're truly great and we've benefited from them.

So I think it's more the type of company we're looking at. Not the idea that one of these theories, or not the other, is the way to explain all companies or all of history. I think you have to look contextually, and here we're typically looking at Rule Breakers and Rule Breakers are almost always driven by real visionaries. Big-time leaders who can translate their vision into real results. So there it is. Both sides of my mouth. Thanks for a great question.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. David Gardner owns shares of Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, Apple, Johnson & Johnson, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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