Views from on high in the billionaire space race

Leadership updates

If the impact of any business executive’s words is a combination of tone, content and the height of the pulpit from which they are delivered, then Sir Richard Branson set a new standard with a brief statement on July 11.

What the Virgin founder said was not that profound. “If we can do this, just imagine what you can do” was his punchline. It was where he said it that gave his words special clout. Branson and fellow crew members were enjoying zero gravity, in a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, 86km above the New Mexico desert, as they raced to take commercial tourists to space.

I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do #Unity22 @virgingalactic

— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021

Days later, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder (above), flew even higher in his Blue Origin capsule. Elon Musk watched from the ground, secure in the knowledge that his SpaceX project had already rocketed ahead, lifting payloads and astronauts further into space than the other billionaires.

That these missions demonstrated a mastery of precision engineering is not in doubt. But all three men are also master-engineers of “CEO-speak”. They calibrated and fine-tuned what they said and the way they said it for the different audiences they wished to reach.

The exuberant Bezos saved his deeper thoughts for the post-landing press conference. Seen from above, he said, Earth’s atmosphere is “this tiny little fragile thing and as we move about the planet, we’re damaging it”. A week later, in a different style, he wrote a serious open letter to Nasa, in an attempt to blast Blue Origin back into a Nasa programme to help land astronauts on the moon, for which SpaceX was originally selected. This was “tone from the top” taken to its loftiest level yet.

It is all too easy to dismiss CEO-speak as flannel, propaganda or hype. It is often all that. But you ignore it at your peril. Russell Craig and Joel Amernic, longtime students of the language of senior executives, write that tone from the top “can reveal much about the personality and strategic outlook of a company’s leaders”, including their worst side, such as inclinations towards hubris, narcissism and even fraud.

This chief executive “space-speak” came too late for Craig and Amernic’s latest book Decoding CEO-Speak, but Branson, Bezos and Musk all make an appearance. Musk’s imprudent tweeting as chief executive of Tesla, which forced the regulator to intervene to curb his social media habit, merits mention as a cautionary tale. The clever autobiographical vignette with which Bezos tried to soften up a hostile US congressional committee last year in a written statement is also included.

The point is that leaders’ words matter and should be carefully monitored for linguistic hints of what lies beneath. As an English graduate, columnist and interviewer, I can hardly disagree.

In one example, Amernic and Craig dissect Ramalinga Raju’s public statements, leading up to his 2009 resignation as chief executive of Indian software services group Satyam, which turned out to have committed massive fraud. Raju gave his letters to shareholders an increasingly positive spin as he struggled to conceal his deception. According to computer analysis of positive and negative words, Raju’s 2006-07 letter achieved a “perfectly positive” tone of +1. That compares with the mean score, detected by a a separate study, of +0.568 for annual earnings releases for the sector.

It troubles me, though, that most CEO-speak is now so prepped and polished, often by communications advisers, that it is hard to discern any real emotion. Craig acknowledged to me that chief executives’ impromptu statements are often more revealing than the press office’s version. Investors now use algorithms analyse executives’ discussion of corporate results and gain an instant edge.

Nobody is suggesting chief executives should be locked up preventively on the basis of an over-positive word-count in press releases. But the risk of pointing out that the computer says a surfeit of positivity may suggest behind-the-scenes deception is that companies will use the same software to sterilise public statements of any useful meaning. Having read plenty of bloodless press releases and sat through more than my fair share of interviews with unbending executives, drilled to go no further than the party line, I would argue that has been happening for a while.

As Amernic told me: “To some extent, we want the passion and the vision to come through. That may lead the CEO to break through the boundary of neutrality — and that may not be a bad thing. There should be some cases where it’s appropriate.” No employee or customer will ever be inspired by a CEO speech neutered by software, for instance.

“Best day ever!” Bezos chortled, as he descended from space. Perhaps as the world’s richest man (and now ex-chief executive of Amazon), he has licence to say whatever he wants. But I’ll take that unfettered joy over a piece of algorithmically sanitised official CEO-speak any day.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor