Nothing At The Top
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – There are many mysteries that haunt the universe. Like, what ever happened to global warming? Why does our stock always go down after a great earnings report? How many CFOs does it take to repurpose a lightbulb?

But the greatest mystery in our world today is Murray. I'm going to call him Murray, although that is not really his name. He doesn't need a name. He's nobody. He's also, perhaps, your CEO.

I'm mentioning this because just today I saw Murray in the newspaper. He's just been named to a top job at one of the biggest corporations in the world. So I guess he'll have to put on his nice suit and start looking executive again. He can do that. That's all he does, but it's a lot. Very few people can do it. Why?

And why is only the beginning. There are many questions to ask about Murray. Here are a few:

1. What qualifications does Murray possess that enable him constantly to nab top slots wherever he places his chair? He clearly knows nothing more about business than any average employee.

2. Does he have a record of success?

3. Could he possibly be as empty as he looks? And, finally ...

4. How does this happen? How does an idiot, at least in the business sense, become the highest officer in the company?

Suggested answers:

1. None. Murray has no qualifications other than a lifetime of meandering about looking quizzical. His one possible talent is finding tough, vicious operatives to do the actual work. I have sat with him many times in meetings. Often he has appeared on the verge of sleep. Sometimes he launches into pet visionary hobbyhorses unrelated to the subject at hand. One has the sensation of a vast cloud of unknowing at the end of the table, unless it is a round table that has no end.

2. No. Each time Murray actually has to perform an executive function, as opposed to simply wearing a suit, he is replaced, departing with a load of bullion. Think of the Presidents of the U.S. They were men of action and resolve. And then there was Millard Fillmore. Chester Allan Arthur. William Howard Taft. Calvin Coolidge. George H.W. Bush. Murray is one of those.

3. Yes. The winds of the Kalahari sing in his cranium. That is not to say he is stupid. He may, in fact, be too intelligent to be smart. Perhaps he has rock music whipping around in the space between his ears, or the voice of Allah, or an enthusiasm for model trains, or, more tragically, new media. He has no ideas concerning sales, marketing, production, or the management of people. Those things he leaves to others.

4. Ah, that is the question. And it is asked over and over again, literally. After each meeting with Murray, people stand around and say to each other, "How did he get his job?"

The easy answer is that your board of directors, torn by ignorance and indecision, selected Murray because he'd had the top job before some place and was so vague and insubstantial during the selection process that nobody could quite believe he was nobody at all. So they elected him, because they saw in him what they wanted to see.

But that's only part of it. A few months ago I was wandering around downtown, looking for a place to have a drink. The downtown area of my city is a place where all the loose marbles go to roll around, particularly in the evening. I noticed a guy strolling toward me. He was short and a little bony, with a big frond of hair popping out from under a corduroy cap that would have been appropriate on a person a third his age, for this fellow was darn near 60. Over his shoulder was a student's backpack with, I noticed, a book and a bottle of wine popping out of it.

"Hey, Bing," said this rather unprepossessing person. "Hi, Murray," I said. "What you up to?"

"Nothing much," said Murray. "A little consulting work."

We shook hands and went on our way. I watched him go. This was not the Murray I knew, the man in pinstripes with a perpetually thoughtful expression that meant exactly nothing. This was another Murray. Which Murray? What was Murray? Was there a Murray at all? And was it not, ladies and gentlemen, this very lack of a coherent self that was the secret both of Murray's mystery and his success?

I'd like to wish good luck to Murray's new corporation, and to the people who work for it. I read the announcement in the Wall Street Journal, and it looks as if they made the right decision. Who knows? A person with no ideas may be no more dangerous than one with a bunch of bad ones.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but in business a whole lot of nothing may be the most appropriate thing indeed.

By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at