CEOs Often Spanked as Kids
By Del Jones, USA TODAY, October 9, 2006
The debate over whether CEOs are born or made remains unresolved, but there is one thing they overwhelmingly have in common.
As children, they were paddled, belted, switched or swatted.
Child psychologists wince at such a finding. They warn that spanking slows mental development and hinders achievement. They say the last thing parents need in the back of their minds is a suggestion or justification that the rod is the road to vision, ruthless drive and other leadership traits common to CEOs.
But USA TODAY interviewed about 20 CEOs over three months and, while none said they were abused, neither were any spared. Typical is General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, 53. He got an occasional "whack in the fanny," while growing up in Richmond, Va., but said he had it coming and that it probably had no influence on his life as a high achiever.
"I probably deserved it more," Wagoner says, and though he spanked his two sons less often, it was "probably not enough," he jokes. "I'm not sure they deserved it less than I did."
The Securities and Exchange Commission doesn't require CEOs to disclose childhood paddlings, so USA TODAY ambushed them with the question during interviews on other topics.
A handful declined to respond. "I don't remember," said Sheldon Adelson, 73, CEO of the Las Vegas Sands casino and hotel operation. The son of poor immigrants grew richer by $1 million an hour over the past two years to become worth $20.5 billion and the third-richest man in America.
But most CEOs answered the question, albeit through forced smiles. "Very, very rarely," said Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, 56, the son of two doctors, who visited USA TODAY in July for what he knew would be a wide-ranging interview. He had no idea how wide ranging. "I'm from Charleston, West Virginia. My dad was firmer than my mom," he said.
Some CEOs had more heavy-handed parents. Dave Haffner, CEO of Fortune 500 manufacturer Leggett & Platt, says he was familiarized with his father's belt about six times a year. That includes the time Haffner, then 8 or 9, kicked down the screen door after his brother locked him in the basement.
"I received the belt when I deserved it," said Haffner, 54, who spoke with obvious love in his voice for his father, Carl, a mechanic and truck driver who expected every tool to be in its place. After the interview, Haffner volunteered to pose for a photo beside the grave of his father, who died in 1989 at 72.
Is there some connection between corporal punishment and corporate leadership? Most CEOs believe spankings played little or no role in their success but usually could cite important lessons learned. "I'm disciplined, detailed and organized," Haffner says.
Mark Cuban, 48, says he was spanked one or two times but does not remember why. He went on to become worth $2.3 billion, rich enough to buy "toys" such as the Dallas Mavericks. "I got the 'this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you' speech from my dad. I don't think spankings influenced my life one way or the other," Cuban says.
A Generational Thing
University of New Hampshire sociology professor Murray Straus, author of Beating the Devil Out of Them, has been studying corporal punishment since 1969 and says it comes as no surprise that almost every CEO was spanked. They mostly grew up in the 1950s and 1960s.
Although the systematic use of corporal punishment has declined steadily, 90% of toddlers are still spanked at least once, he says, and a 1998 Gallup Poll found that 55% of parents agreed with the statement "A good hard spanking is sometimes necessary."
But Straus says evidence points to corporal punishment as detrimental. If some spanked children grow up to be successful, even billionaires, it's like saying, go ahead and smoke because two-thirds of smokers don't get lung cancer, he said.
"We don't allow any other humans to be legally hit," says Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline.
TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, 55 and the oldest of five children, says he was "hit" about once a month when things were going well, about once a week when they weren't. "If I came home late, chances are I'd get hit. If my parents found out I was someplace I wasn't supposed to be, I'd get hit."
Ditto if Moglia got into a fistfight — unless someone else started it. He remembers his parents as hardworking immigrants with no time for diversions such as swimming lessons. That required strict rules about playing near the Hudson River.
Forty-five years ago, the 10-year-old Moglia and his 9-year-old brother, John, rescued an injured pigeon near the river bank. A year went by. One day, his father gave him a spanking without warning or explanation. When Joe returned to his room, a laughing John revealed that he had blabbed about the pigeon incident.
Joe Moglia said he learned from his parents, and later from his athletic coaches, that "tough love is better than soft love," and he has written books on leadership that recommend positive reinforcement backed up by consequences. "You appreciate good-weather days when you get rain," Moglia says.
Incidences of CEO spankings go well beyond USA TODAY's anecdotal research. Retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch wrote in his 2001 memoir, Jack: Straight from the Gut, that his mother, Grace, was the disciplinarian in the family. When Welch skipped altar-boy practice, she whacked him with a shoe.
Eve Tahmincioglu interviewed 55 CEOs about their backgrounds for her book From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top, which went on sale Friday. The book includes chapters on such things as how CEOs attacked their first jobs and how they overcame bad bosses, but Chapter One is called "Parents: Less Carrot, More Stick."
She found that most CEOs had tough disciplinarians as parents. Among those who told Tahmincioglu that they had been spanked were Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, Shell Chemicals Executive Vice President Fran Keeth, Alliant Energy Resources former CEO Erroll Davis, SCO Group CEO Darl McBride and United Way CEO Brian Gallagher.
A Mean Drunk
Gallagher told Tahmincioglu that he was, at a minimum, verbally abused. "My dad was drunk all the time, and he was a very mean guy when he was drunk. It was every day, from the time he woke up in the morning with a shot and a beer. You were just afraid of him." He learned not to feel sorry for himself and that anyone could rise from a bad environment.
Parsons told Tahmincioglu that he was often spanked with a switch from a tree, primarily for misbehaving at school. Switches were also used on Shell's Keeth (from the family's peach tree) and Alliant's Davis (from a tree/bush in the backyard that could be easily stripped of leaves). Keeth says in the book that her father spanked her and her siblings "in a loving way."
Tahmincioglu says she spanks her children, 4 and 6, on rare occasions and has felt less guilty about it since researching her book. "One night, my son was being a bear, and I told my husband, 'Hit him. The CEOs got spanked.' "
She said she did not ask every CEO about their spankings, but among those who answered the question, it was unanimous. None said there was a direct correlation between spanking and success. "But they respected authority. It wasn't a joke to them. They feared their parents but loved them as well. Their parents would follow through with a spanking. Today, there is no follow-through," Tahmincioglu said.
Spanked female executives include Keeth; Nancy McKinstry, the American CEO of giant Dutch publisher Wolters Kluwer; and Wal-Mart (WMT) Chief Information Officer Linda Dillman.
Nick Turner, the 33-year-old chief financial officer of executive recruiter Kaye/Bassman International, says his sister rarely got spanked, while he and his four brothers got the belt so regularly that, "by today's standards, it would be over the top."
Turner says he never went an entire month without a spanking, and he often got them on consecutive days. "Dad raised the boys, and Mom raised the girls," he says. "You were expected to say, 'Yes, ma'am' and 'Yes, sir.' You eat at 5:30, and you don't eat with your fingers. You knew if you didn't mow the yard right away or chop wood or feed horses, you were going to get a spanking, period."
Turner gives credit to corporal punishment for his success. He says he wasn't a bad or malicious child, but he was difficult and needed to learn self-discipline and to focus on a goal. "I certainly wouldn't have done that if I had grown up with Mary Poppins."
He meets many top executives in his job as an executive recruiter and estimates that 90% or more got spankings. Colleagues at Kaye/Bassman had "crazy discipline" much like his own, and they turned out to be "stable, focused, competitive guys," Turner says.
If that's the case, it happened despite the punishment, not because of it, says Straus, who gave a presentation on corporal punishment last month in Brazil, a country where 19% agree that a good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary vs. 55% in the USA. In Greece, 87% of parents agree, according to Straus. The worldwide median (half are more, half are less) is 52%.
Raju Reddy, the 46-year-old CEO of software company Sierra Atlantic and a native of India who now lives in Fremont, Calif., says spanking is common in Indian homes. But so are grandparents who are on hand to "soften the blow" after a spanking from Mom or Dad.
Reddy declines to discuss the discipline of his own teen children. But typical of CEOs interviewed is Jim Crane, 52, CEO of transportation logistics company EGL (EAGL), who says he used an infrequent swat to get the attention of his son and daughter, now both in college.
Times are changing. McKinstry says she has never spanked her children.
Moglia has found grounding or taking away some other liberty to be more effective. "They have more time to think about it," Moglia says. "If you get slapped a couple of times, it's over in 30 seconds."
Although children grow too old for spankings, their influence remains for a lifetime. When Haffner graduated from high school, his father insisted that he attend a small college, play football and maintain strict discipline. Instead, Haffner chose to go to the University of Missouri-Columbia, which his father believed to be infested with unsavory influences.
"He threw down the gauntlet," Haffner says. The two didn't speak for a couple of years. "He couldn't whip me anymore. It was because I had to prove my father wrong that I graduated at the top of the engineering class. It was a major contributor to my success. I miss the ol' coot."
Spanking Doesn't Make Them Bad Parents
Straus says it comes as no surprise that CEOs who were spanked express great affection for their parents. It's not just bad parents who spank.
"So do very good parents," he says. "They would be even better parents if they didn't spank, and their kids would be doing even better."
Sara Blakely may be an exception. She says she was "spanked and spanked often," so much that she would wear all of her days-of-the-week underwear at the same time to soften the blow.
Today, she is the founder and owner of a women's undergarment manufacturer that has passed $100 million in retail sales this year.
Blakely says she thought of a name for her company while sitting in Atlanta traffic. It's a name that nobody seems to forget.
Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Childhoods of CEOs Reconsidered
By Mitch Hall, October 10, 2006
The USA Today article, "CEOs Often Spanked as Kids," by Del Jones (10/10/06), is significant for what it does not mention as much as for what it does. A presupposition of the article is that CEOs are successful human beings, perhaps among the most successful. However, that is, at best, a dubious assumption. The Canadian forensic psychiatrist Elliott Barker has written about the high rates of sociopathic personality disorders in corporate CEOs. The documentary movie entitled The Corporation cited the work of another Canadian forensic psychiatrist, Robert Hare, to establish the case that if corporations were individual people, the predatory, remorseless behavior that they demonstrate would lead to their being diagnosed as sociopaths. American CEOs are disproportionately enriched monetarily while most of the rest of the population become more and more hard-pressed to make ends meet, even though in 2000 the average American couple worked seven more weeks a year than they did in 1990 (Morris Berman, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, p. 18). In 2001, CEOs in Germany and Japan earned about 20 times the income of workers in their companies, whereas CEOs in the US earned over 500 times as much as workers in their own companies ("Executive Pay," Business Week, April 16, 2001, pp. 76-80). Some of these same CEOs who are collecting these inordinate spoils for themselves are responsible for massive layoffs of workers, outsourcing work to sweatshops in poor countries, felonies and misdemeanors, hostile takeovers of other companies, and wrecking the environment. As the foregoing considerations make clear, we need to question vigorously the assumption that attaining CEO rank is a measure of being a successful human being. Perhaps the alpha males (and females) at the head of corporations are avenging themselves for childhood humiliations, including corporal punishment, which they rationalize as having been good for them. In their own, culturally sanctioned, winner-takes-all ways, they humiliate others and try to prove they are worth so much more than the rest of humanity.
The truly human measure of success is in behavior characterized by compassion, altruism, collaboration, equality, and other lived (not just espoused) values, rather than in ruthless competitive aggression. The spankings did not lead to success in any meaningful sense, but in the nightmare of social and environmental breakdowns that we are experiencing.
Mitch Hall is Dean of the School of Humanities, New College of California
and a member of the Board of Directors of PTAVE.