Should Gay CEOs Come Out of the Closet?
"Of course there are gay CEOs and I reached out to many of them and got an extremely cool reception," said New York Times columnist Jim Stewart on CNBC, "Not one would allow to be named for the column."
Go figure. Stewart's column last week centered on a candid new book, "The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business," by former BP CEO John Browne. Browne resigned from BP after being outed as gay by a tabloid in 2007.
There has actually been quite a bit of coverage of that CNBC segment, but not for the reason you might think.
After explaining how surprised and fascinated he was that no high-profile CEOs were willing to go on the record about being gay, co-host Simon Hobbs chimed in, "I think Tim Cook is fairly open about the fact that he's gay at the head of Apple, isn't he?"
Stunned silence. Mouths were open, but nobody spoke. Stewart looked at Hobbs and slowly shook his head back and forth. Then Hobbs said, "Oh dear, was that an error?" You think?
The moment was priceless. But the issue, as Stewart said, is a fascinating one. As the CEO of a high-profile public company, Browne led a miserable and desperate double life as he struggled to conceal his sexuality. Now he realizes that was a mistake that didn't do him or BP any good. And he's encouraging others to come out.
I agree … sort of. While living a hidden life is toxic, that still doesn't mean it's a good idea for a Fortune 500 CEO to go around shouting, "I'm gay" from the rooftops. There is a middle ground that makes far more sense. And the Hobbs' Tim Cook snafu provides some real insight into what that middle ground might be.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Cook is gay. I don't have a clue and it matters not to me, but let's go with it. Now, Cook's a pretty private guy, as are all Apple's top executives. They took that call from the Steve Jobs playbook. And it's a good call. Secrecy has been a successful strategy for Apple, as it has for Trader Joe's and others.
The world is already ridiculously complex and competitive for high-profile business leaders and their companies. Why introduce more complexity, confusion and drama into the equation? Sure, CEOs make the big bucks, but that's because of how they work, not how they live. And that's exactly as it should be.
Look at it this way. Have you ever been watching a movie and a sexual situation makes someone in the room uncomfortable? I know I have. That's one reason why we don't get into that sort of thing in the workplace. It makes some people uncomfortable. The other reason is that it's got nothing to do with business. And those are two very good reasons to keep it out of the conversation.
I'm sure plenty of heterosexual executives have all sorts of secrets and private matters they're not interested in discussing in public. We all do. Some of us take drugs – licit or otherwise. Some of us have medical or psychological conditions. Some of us have extreme political views, crazy uncles, fetishes, or bizarre hobbies we have no interest in disclosing.
But that doesn't mean we have to live a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau so aptly put it, because of our sexuality.
I used to be an officer of several public companies. My wife attended some company events. If she were a guy, I doubt that would have changed anything for me. But if a reporter or columnist asked me a personal question, I would simply decline and bring the conversation back to business.
That said, I wasn't a 60-something-year-old CEO of a large British public company 10 years ago. But times are definitely changing, as they always do.
Perhaps this is a generational thing that'll blow over in time. Maybe 30 or 40 years from now privacy will be a thing of the past. Maybe we'll all be so comfortable sharing every detail of our lives on social media that nothing will make anyone uncomfortable and everything will seem ordinary.
In the meantime, Browne makes a very good point and he deserves kudos for making it. Society is a work in progress and he and Stewart are both helping us evolve.
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