Today’s Organization Man

Sports figures, politicians, and political pundits have all recently come out of the closet. Why no C.E.O.’s?

The issue has been heightened by the publication of the memoir of John Browne, BP’s former CEO, forced to resign when he was outed by The Daily Mail in 2007 for his relationship with a rentboy. According to The New York Times: “He thus becomes the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge that he is gay.” (See, “Among Gay C.E.O.s, the Pressure to Conform.”)

The sociologist William H. Whyte published his classic study of The Organization Man in 1956 about how conformity had come to dominate corporate culture. Whyte’s book, along with Sloan Wilson’s “The Man In the Grey Flannel Suit” and C. Wright Mill’s “White Collar” described how in an era of unprecedented economic success, American business was forcing its executives into representing an hyper-idealized image of family life and dedication to corporate goals.

The absence of non-conformist C.E.O.’s today suggest that this image is still being strictly maintained at the top of the corporate hierarchy.

To be sure, there have always been a few exuberantly non-conformist businessmen, like Malcolm Forbes and Richard Branson, but they built their own businesses, striking out on their own. The absence of gay C.E.O.’s in established corporations suggests that we are still captured by a conformist picture of an ideal, imposing on ourselves a restrictive and sanitized image what it means to be human while being in business.