Great Firings in History: A Celebration
There’s been a lot of Sturm und Drang in the American corporate boardroom recently. Carol Bartz, the now former CEO of Yahoo!, was fired by the board’s chairman—by phone. Ms. Bartz thought this shabby exit etiquette and wasted no time ventilating her displeasure, telling Fortune: “These people f—– me over.” She described them as “the worst board in the country,” and—for good measure—“doofuses.” As the famous telegram put it: “F— YOU. STRONG LETTER FOLLOWS.”
Refreshing as it is to hear straight talk from our business leaders, these comments could prove costly to Ms. Bartz, inasmuch as she had a “non-disparagement clause” in her contracts. Ten million dollars is a steep price for a little steam venting.
Then came the “sudden removal” of Hewlett-Packard’s CEO Léo Apotheker, only a year after the untidy firing of his predecessor, Mark Hurd. Mr. Apotheker refrained from dropping the f-bomb or calling the board doofuses, but then he’s German and might have gone with doof. Instead he seemed content to walk away with an estimated $28 million to $33 million in separation fees.
UBS Chief Oswald Grübel might have been fired if he hadn’t resigned, following the revelations that one of his 31-year-old traders had managed to hide $2.3 billion in losses. Will Kweku Adoboli be getting severance pay? No? Then why is he smiling in all those photographs of him in handcuffs?
Firings—or to use the neater British term, sackings—are often occasions of drama. Protocol, punctilio, politesse suddenly drop, leaving Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” But let’s review Ms. Bartz’s messy departure in the larger historical scheme of things, shall we: Where does a Silicon Valley chief executive being fired by phone truly rank in the pantheon?
It’s a long, long list, so why don’t we confine ourselves to, say: Satan, Adam and Eve, Judas Iscariot, Nicolas Fouquet, Sir John Falstaff, Generals McClellan, Patton, and MacArthur, the Nixon White House, Don Regan, and one or two Hollywood spectacles.
Starting at the top (as it were): Satan, Adam and Eve, Judas. We’re still dealing with the fallout from their dismissals. Former angel Satan, “the brightest in the sky,” attempted a corporate takeover of the heavens. But God, an experienced and canny chairman of the board, managed to hold onto his seat and down went Satan—with no golden parachute.
Satan, however, was not the kind to go off and write a book about fly-fishing or do some consulting. He’s the Barry Diller of the Book of Revelation. He came back with a poison pill, forcing God to fire Adam and Eve. (Maybe He should have offered Satan that parachute after all.)
The Last Supper could be viewed as Jesus’s last meeting with the 12 directors on his board. It was a productive session: Jesus instituted the Eucharist and correctly predicted that his successor would screw up three times before getting his act together. But he had to fire one of the board members, and that led to—well, you know the rest. If Jesus had offered Judas a severance package, things might have turned out very differently.
Skipping ahead to the 17th century, we come to Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances under Louis XIV. As the minister in charge of le Roi Soleil’s tax collectors, Fouquet managed to become a very, very wealthy public servant. Perhaps you’ve visited his modest country home, Vaux-le-Vicomte. It’s good to be the Superintendent of Finances. His mistake was inviting the king to Vaux-le-Vicomte for a fête that made Stephen Schwarzman’s birthday parties look like beggars banquets. Louis, whose motto was L’etat c’est moi, pas vous—tossed Fouquet into jail, where he died 19 years later.
Shakespeare is full of sackings. The ones that come most vividly to my mind are Hamlet’s (unauthorized) firing of Polonius, Elsinore’s chief of staff, and Henry V’s dismissal of his old mentor and drinking buddy, Sir John Falstaff. Polonius’s severance consisted of a sword thrust through the arras. Henry terminated Falstaff with less prejudice: “I banish thee, on pain of death … not to come near our person by ten mile”—a 15th century restraining order. Kings didn’t bother much with non-disparagement clauses. Would Carol Bartz have called Henry a doofus? Methinks not.
Reviewing an abbreviated roster of American military sackees, two common denominators stick out: disrespect and an excess of initiative. Civil War General George McClellan was always going on about what a dolt President Lincoln was. (He was the General Stanley McChrystal of his day, not to equate President Lincoln and Vice-President Joe Biden). Patton and MacArthur were angrily dismissed by their Commanders-in-Chief, but it added a certain luster to their legends.
Nixon’s White House may have been white, but what a lot of blood was left on those walls. Watergate was Death by a Hundred Cuts and a Night of the Long Knives, the latter being the Saturday Night Massacre. Archibald Cox, Elliot Richardson, and William Ruckelshaus—a trifecta. A year later, Richard Nixon, facing the Presidential version of being fired, wisely took early retirement. Clearly, Grübel took note.
I worked for a time within those walls some years later, when the 24/7 news cycle had arrived. The joke then—not thigh-slapping but funny in a grim kind of way—was that you might learn that you’d been fired by hearing it first on CNN.
The sacking of Don Regan, the grumpy chief of staff of the Reagan Götterdämmerung, is the stuff of high comedy (see Richard Reeves’s superb history, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination):
“As Regan calmed down, [Vice-President] Bush asked him about the President’s schedule …
“ ‘That’s in the hands of an astrologer in San Francisco, George.’
“The Vice-President looked mystified. Regan poured out his frustrations about the woman Mrs. Reagan called ‘My friend,’ Joan Quigley. ‘Good God,’ said Bush.”
Moving now to Hollywood: David O. Selznick famously fired director George Cukor from Gone With the Wind after only three weeks of shooting. More recently, Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner fired his president, Michael Ovitz, after only a year on the job. It was nasty, but Ovitz landed softly, thanks to an estimated $170 million parachute. (About $465,000 of severance for every day. Nice work if you can get it.) Later, Eisner sacked Jeffrey Katzenberg with a package valued at an estimated quarter-billion. Eisner might have been the Boss From Hell, but he had the Midas touch when it came to severance—a quality not esteemed by Disney’s shareholders.
The 2009 movie Up in the Air starred George Clooney as a corporate downsizer who flies around the country sacking entire companies at a time. At one point during the filming, director Jason Reitman decided to cast people who had actually been fired by this brutal, impersonal process.
One of the most trenchant bits of dialogue in the David Mamet canon is surely the moment in Glengarry Glen Ross when the head of the real estate company, played to liquid-nitrogen-cold perfection by Alec Baldwin, tells the boys: “We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, the first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see the second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”
There’s a term used in kayaking: if you capsize and can’t upright yourself, you do what’s called a “wet exit.” Ms. Bartz’s departure from Yahoo was an example of the wet exit. A dry exit is usually preferable, especially if it comes with $10 million.