More Mr. Nice Guy

“We tend to overlook the fact of our own mortality and that we’re all on the razor’s edge,” AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin commented in a recent issue of Fortune, the AOL Time Warner-owned magazine that singled him out as one of the “smartest people we know.” He added: “All leaders must recognize this and deal with it.”

Yesterday Levin dealt with it by announcing his retirement, effective in May of next year. His designated successor is Richard Parsons. Parsons, as described by this morning’s press accounts, sounds like a really nice guy. He’s “a diplomat,” “you feel comfortable with him,” he’s “relaxed,” he’s “affable,” he’s known for “getting along” with everyone, not to mention a certain “bonhomie,” he’s “disarming,” a “consummate conciliator,” a man into harmony instead of confrontation, he’s charming, he’s “a big, gregarious teddy bear.” AOL shares rose $1 on the nice news.

The striking thing about all this is that you usually don’t hear a whole lot about affability and a dislike of confrontation as hallmark traits of great corporate leadership. What you usually hear about is hard-nosed fearlessness, maybe even ruthlessness. Certainly no one ever accused Jack Welch, shareholding America’s favorite CEO in recent years, of being a gregarious teddy bear. I gather the thinking is that any unnice activities will be overseen by Robert Pittman, who will continue as the firm’s chief operating officer and will “make the trains run on time,” as Parsons (charmingly) put it.

So is this an aberration, or are we about to enter a new era of kinder, gentler CEO-heroes? Levin, in the Fortune “smartest people” roundup, went on to say: “Now is when some instinctive human compassion is required, combined with fierce determination to be focused on clear objectives. It’s the soft side and the steely side coming together.” Perhaps that’s how he sees the two-man team that will ascend in May.

Not to be unnice about all this, but the pragmatic reason for having Parsons serve as the consensus-seeking public face of the company is that probably the biggest issue in AOL’s immediate future will be its attempt to buy AT&T’s cable unit. Diplomacy would be a fairly crucial aspect of getting such a deal approved.

And appearances aside, Levin’s departure hardly means his legacy or AOL Time Warner’s future success are secure. As some of today’s reports noted, the combined company is going to end up with roughly the same combined revenue the two companies would likely have had as separate entities—in other words, no synergistic effects on the top line yet. And there’s every indication that the merger partners are still learning how to work with each other. It will be years before that’s truly sorted out.

Levin himself does not appear to have forged a successful career out of kindly consensus-building, but rather out of shrewdness and determination. “Machiavelli incarnate,” as one ex-Time Inc.-er puts it in one of the Wall Street Journal’s pieces today. One report suggests that he now might write a novel, and another has him saying: “I want my identity back. … I have strong moral convictions. I’m not just a suit. I want some poetry back in my life.” He seems to stop just short of shouting, “I am not a CEO—I am a human being!”  And maybe that’s the key. Maybe the constituency that’s grown tired of the ruthless chief executive paradigm is chief executives themselves. In the long run, shareholders may not be impressed by this development, but Levin, at least, won’t have to worry about them anymore. And that, I’m sure, will be nice.