Business leaders are the new monarchs
IN THE TT In the 15th century, many Portuguese discovery trips to Africa and Asia were funded by Prince Henry of Portugal, whom historians have dubbed “Henry the Navigator”. When Christopher Columbus sought funds for his planned trip west to “India,” he first turned to the King of Portugal before succeeding with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The monarchs funded the explorations because they believed that such trips would increase their power and their treasures.
In the 21st century, business leaders have become deeply involved in adventure and exploration. Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have just traveled to the far reaches of space. Tesla’s Elon Musk developed the SpaceX program and talks about a possible colonization of Mars. MM. Musk and Bezos competed for the contract to operate the future moon landings. Mr. Bezos even offered to co-finance the project.
In itself, this is a remarkable development. Sixty years ago, when the space race was between America and the Soviet Union, few could have imagined that individual businessmen would ever have the resources to join the fray. The change speaks volumes about the extremes of wealth in the 21st century.
The resemblance to absolute monarchs doesn’t stop with exploration. Like rulers of the past, modern tycoons are building their own landmarks in the form of corporate headquarters, not just skyscrapers in London and New York, but the vast, low-rise campuses of Silicon Valley. While the ancient dynasts traveled in horse-drawn carriages, the modern ones CEO parting from the public in chauffeured limousines and private jets.
Like the monarchs of old, rulers face competing sources of power. They face the equivalent of feudal barons, in the form of boards of directors who may attempt to overthrow them. And they have to face ambitious princes, who in the modern age are younger executives who would love their jobs. The good news is that while a fallen monarch was likely to be executed, a dethroned boss can enjoy a generous reward.
Then there is their ability to control the weather. At the court of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, the rhythm of the day was entirely devoted to the habits of the monarch, the luckiest courtiers watching him dress, have lunch and go to bed. Modern CEOs also have the ability to change the schedules of those around them. If they get up at 5 a.m. to send messages, a staff member will feel pressured to get up early and respond to them. Likewise, if the CEO likes to host Zoom conferences on weekends or have working dinners on Friday evenings, the family life of subordinates will suffer.
Another parallel with monarchs is a tendency towards arrogance. In his book “Fall”, John Preston relates that when Robert Maxwell, the publishing mogul, was unhappy with his food, he would sometimes sweep the plate on the floor and let others clean it. Maxwell also tapped his staff’s phones and eavesdropped on their conversations, which is also reminiscent of Louis XIV, who intercepted mail from his courtiers.
Lavish entertainment is another common denominator. Monarchs would throw elaborate balls and compete to show off their wealth. Modern tycoons pay rock stars to perform on their birthdays. Carlos Ghosn, the boss of Nissan, even organized an extravagant evening in the old excavations of the Sun King in Versailles.
The royal dynasties were added to their empires both through military conquests and strategic marriages. Modern leaders achieve the same effect through mergers and acquisitions, using their financial clout to buy out smaller competitors and reduce the threat of disruptive competition. Indeed, the former monarchs were monopoly providers of security services, who received payment in the form of taxes and conscription. Their permanent sin was too much ambition; The military extension of Philip II of Spain in the fight against England and the Netherlands was followed by the country’s constant decline as a world power, for example.
The same trap awaits modern tycoons. Often, they make the mistake of taking on too much debt by acquiring businesses that don’t fit the rest of the business. Or, like many former leaders, they make the mistake of fighting on two fronts. Space-obsessed Mr. Bezos is still executive chairman of Amazon. Mr. Musk tries to make both rockets and Tesla cars. The greatest danger to monarchs can come when they appear at the peak of their powers.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The New Monarchs”