Corporate leaders, recalibrated

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What sort of individual does the term "CEO" bring to mind? Perhaps you guard against creating a collective profile for what is no doubt a somewhat diverse lot of chief executives running US firms. Good for you.

But media-fed perceptions can be hard to block out.

In the late 1990s, the term would likely have evoked somebody young, casual, and steeped in a fast culture of ideas.

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Just after Sept. 11, you might have added "caring" to the litany of attributes outwardly displayed.

And today? Call in the image consultants. The heads of some big firms, in particular, find themselves in a public-relations pit.

Don't hang it all on the hangdog heads of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and Merrill Lynch.

But you'll surprise no one if you say "CEO" conjures up a sheepish suit-wearer with his right hand raised, being sworn in to testify.

Troubles trigger turnover.

"The departure of CEOs from prominent companies in the past few days may be fresh evidence of the new scrutiny the No. 1 position is receiving," says John Challenger, head of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm that tracks corporate moves.

In a May 2 release, the firm cited 2,539 CEO changes since August 1999. In the three days before the release alone, 14 chief executives were unseated.

Mr. Challenger can imagine "the abandonment of the CEO title." He even proposes an alternative, "chief service officer," to accompany a new approach toward employees, shareholders, and the community.

Today's lead story looks at chiefs who step outside the corporate maelstrom altogether, to find out what they can learn, and teach, while running nonprofits.

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