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Pfizer's CEO resignation: Fatigue sets in

After a brutal few years at the helm of one of the nation's largest pharmaceutical firms, Jeffrey Kindler is too fatigued to carry on. The Pfizer CEO, who is 55 years old, said in a statement that the 24/7 nature of the job and the efforts to meet stakeholders' requirements has made the job "extremely demanding on me personally."

The statement is a rarity among CEO departures. Like the resignation several days ago by Barry Diller at online powerhouse IAC, who admitted he has known "for some time" that the company needs "a full-time, aggressive and aspirational" CEO, Kindler's statement is notable for its candor. While Kindler, like other CEOs, trumpets his accomplishments and says he's looking forward to spending time with his family, he also doesn't try to play Superman, acknowledging the incredible strains of the job.

Whatever one may say of Pfizer's performance in recent years--the stock is down 35 percent since Kindler took over, the company was subject to civil and criminal penalties for fraudulent marketing, and a massive merger integration of Wyeth has had its hiccups, reports The Wall Street Journal--Kindler is surely expressing publicly how many CEOs privately feel about their jobs. But of course, they can't. They are compensated so extraordinarily much that it's impossible to feel sorry for them having to globe trot 200 days a year or work every day from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Yes, CEOs owe it to their shareholders to give generously of their energy and time to their jobs, and to work extremely hard for the rich compensation they're rewarded. That's why Diller's comment at his exit, and implication that the company did not have an "aggressive" CEO, was notable.

It's also true, however, that it's not human to work the ridiculous hours that most CEOs work, or to travel as extensively as most of them travel. But in a corporate environment that has made a cult of the CEO, we expect chief executives to be super human. We somehow believe a single individual should be present at every critical customer meeting worldwide, exude enthusiasm and spout nuanced detail about every minor trifle in a vast global corporation, and--faster than a speeding bullet--be capable of single-handedly turning around an ailing firm's fortunes.

Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana has written masterfully about this issue, and the consequences of believing one leader can do it all. In his excellent 2002 book, Searching for a Corporate Savior, Khurana examines the market for CEO jobs and how an undue focus on charisma in candidates leads to raised, if not unrealistic, expectations for top corporate leaders.

CEOs' jobs should be simple, really. It's their responsibility to set the vision and strategy for the company, to make sure that the people who work for them have the resources and skills they need to do their jobs, and then to get out of the way to let them do them.

But with such a cult of celebrity built up around top leaders--not to mention the rich compensation they receive--it's easy to see why they get involved in doing so much more. Maybe if CEOs were paid in more equitable terms, they wouldn't feel as much of an obligation to work the inhuman hours and keep up with the insane travel schedules that they, their companies and their shareholders seem to believe will help justify the riches they earn. And then maybe they'd stay in their jobs a little longer, too.

By Jena McGregor

 |  December 6, 2010; 2:09 PM ET |  Category:  CEO watch , Career Management , Change management , Corporate leadership , Personal Leadership Journey Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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