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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

oPtion$ Book Club

Option Thanks, Matt, for inviting me to participate.  oPtion$ was, first and foremost, a delightful read.   It's one of those rare books that actually made me laugh out loud, not just once but over and over again.   For the exam-weary professor looking for a light-hearted break from the sixty-fifth description of the Business Judgment Rule or the Statute of Frauds, this book is ideal.

But from the perspective of a corporate governance junkie, the book's greatness is also its most disappointing flaw.  What makes the book so wildly, hysterically funny is how incredibly over-the-top all the characters are.  Fake Steve Jobs is a cartoon character.  He runs a major public corporation by spending most of his time meditating, doing yoga, hypnotizing his enemies, and playing practical jokes with his "closest thing I have to an actual friend" Larry Ellison, often while dressed in a kimono.  The book does capture some of the isolation from reality experienced by powerful CEOs, but takes it too far beyond reality to permit any meaningful exploration of the phenomenon or of its consequences for our economy.  Certainly part of the problem with corporate governance is the cult of personality that often surrounds the CEO.  That sort of corporate culture can lead to an arrogant sense of entitlement that may have contributed to inter alia, the rampant problems with options backdating.  More troublingly, it may yield business decisions made without much discussion or consideration of dissenting possibilities through psychological processes such as groupthink and social cascades (pardon my plug). 

We certainly see some of this in oPtion$.  I especially loved Fake Steve Jobs' response to any challenge:  "Dude, I invented the friggin iPod.  Have you heard of it?"  But the problems are all presented against the backdrop of such unreal characters and situations that the satire loses much of its critical force.   As comic relief, oPtion$ is a wonderful, creative, entertaining read, but as social satire I couldn't help finding it disappointing.

Spoiler Alert:  Unlike the New York Times reviewer, I really enjoyed the ending.  If you haven't yet read the book, you might not want to read on.  In the end, Fake Steve escapes to an island, replaced by his personal assistant Ja'Red (who has undergone plastic surgery to look more like Fake Jobs).  No one notices.  Ja'Red -- a college dropout who Fake Steve hired mainly out of unrequited lust for Ja'Red's girlfriend -- manages Apple just as well as Fake Steve, if not better.   

Lyons may have intended this  plot point as an indictment of  the real Steve Jobs' managerial talents (comments welcome!).  But I enjoyed it mainly because it embodies a notion I've long held that CEO talent is considerably less rare and unique than is commonly believed.  I'm not suggesting that most Fortune 500 CEOs could be replaced by English professors, but I do suspect that the difference between the best CEO candidate and the next best is far less significant -- and more importantly, far less reliably predictable -- than the different pay scales would indicate.  If I'm right, that sense of entitlement (and corresponding paycheck) is even less justified than we might think.

Posted by Michael Dorff on December 4, 2007 at 01:55 PM in oPtion$ Book Club | Permalink

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