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Ungodly power of boss' moniker

Ungodly power of boss' moniker

What's in a name? Quite a lot when it comes to giving the boss a nickname.

When it comes to nicknames, a surprisingly large number of male CEOs are known simply as "God". The names underlings bestow often point to the omnipresent nature of the boss, the power wielded and the leader's elevated nature. Wesfarmers managing director Richard Goyder is one "God", having taken the place of the outgoing "Saint Mike" Chaney, now chairman at the National Australia Bank. According to at least one report, the well-respected Chaney, too, had his moments as "God" while at Wesfarmers.

Making up a Holy Trinity is chairman of JPMorgan in Australia and New Zealand, Rod Eddington, who maintained his "God" nickname, which referred to his stunning engineering results at university.

According to research on how people get their nicknames, men are more likely to give and get them. The closest that Westpac CEO Gail Kelly gets to it is the rather lame "Kelly Gang" for her group of senior executives. Former Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson (now FlexiGroup chairman) gets the homely Maj, from the first letters of her name Margaret Anne Jackson.

The differences between men and women when it comes to nicknames is more than just the scarcity of good female ones. When it comes to positions of power, only a masculine name will do, even if you are a woman.

Lucy Taksa, director of the Industrial Relations Research Centre at the Australian School of Business, says that despite the advances women have made in the business world, a powerful woman is still somewhat of an anomaly, as shown by the kind of nicknames they get.

While a man will usually get a masculine, affirming kind of name, a female leader will more often than not be given a double-barrelled name linking a female term with a masculinising one.

"When looking at nicknames used for leading women, you get this gendered ambiguity where it is not just around traditional feminine attributes or traditionally masculine attributes, it is about the linking of the two," says Taksa. "It is this idea they are crossing over traditional gendered roles and that can be quite negative and nasty."

Journalist Jana Wendt was famously the "perfumed steamroller". Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was the "Iron Lady" or "Attila the Hen", depending on your political persuasion. Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was the "Iron Lady" before Thatcher and was referred to as "the only man in the cabinet", says Taksa.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the German derivation "Iron Frau", which was quite a leap from "Das Maedchen" (the girl), which was what she was previously called by her mentor, Helmut Kohl.

"It was her mentor using that, so he was establishing a particular power relationship. She was his girl. So in all of these nicknames, you encounter a power relationship of who belongs and who doesn't belong. It is a form of social control."

The twinning of the attributes is not all bad, it is part of the process of accepting a woman at the top - but it is still a traditionally male domain.

"It is like they are saying: 'You belong as a leader, but you are not a woman any more . . . to validate these women, they are masculinised," Taksa says.

She says her work is about how a certain sort of machismo is promoted through nicknaming.

"Most of it focuses on certain types of traditional male gender stereotypes."

Flight Centre CEO Graham Turner inherited a shortened version of a nickname given to his school housemaster. The housemaster, also named Turner, was called "Screwdriver". Years later, as he was building up his travel empire in London, "Screw" became the slightly more acceptable "Skroo".

Spotless Services chairman Peter Smedley became "Pac-Man" in the 1990s, in honour of his acquisitive nature when at Colonial financial services, where he went on a $3 billion spending spree.

Taksa says nicknames are also a form of social control. When someone gets a negative name because of something they have done, it sends a message to others that they shouldn't follow suit. Think of "Sir Lunchalot", Ross Turnbull, the dumped former president of the NRMA, who lost the confidence of the board over use of the corporate credit card, among other things.

US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gets "Helicopter Ben" as a derogatory term, referring to his analogy of dropping cash from a helicopter to avoid deflation.

If the aim is to disempower a male leader, they might be given female or childish attributes: "Little Johnny Howard", for instance.

Many nicknames, however, are affectionate and can be a way of humanising a powerful figure. Australia's richest man is Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest. Microsoft's Bill Gates' nickname "Trey" is suitably obtuse, stemming from the American affectation "III" at the end of his name.

BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus is widely known as "Don't Argue", while US investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, with an estimated $US62 billion ($63.5 billion), is also known as the "Oracle of Omaha".

Fairfax Business Media

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