Despite an economic recovery and improving stock market, a stark reality faces America's business elite: While the perks of sitting in a corner office are great, job security isn't one of them.
The surprise departure of Boeing's chief executive officer, a sudden shakeup at Delta Airlines, and a top-level tussle at the Walt Disney Co. over the future of CEO Michael Eisner are three current examples. But the trend runs wider, reflecting a heightened corporate focus on ethics and financial performance - and on the duty of directors to keep tabs on both.
The upshot: Although being CEO has never been easy, top executives today live more than ever with angst as well as high pay and "golden parachutes."
• Some 39 percent of all CEO turnover last year was involuntary (a firing or forced resignation), up from 25 percent in 2001, according to the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH). Some experts believe this year's number will be higher.
• Just in the past few business days, 14 US chief executives have departed, says John Challenger of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
"The professional life of a large company's chief executive increasingly resembles that of the Hobbesian man: It is nasty, brutish, and short," notes a study by BAH, a major consulting firm, making reference to writings of a 17th century English social philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.
For years, it's been true that poor financial performance will cause a CEO ouster. But some experts see corporate boards increasing their performance-driven vigilance - and taking other matters into account.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management, sees a new pattern where CEOs are turned out not just for overt misconduct or failing to boost the stock price, but also to maintain the firm's credibility.
That's the case, he says, in the recent departure of the New York Stock Exchange chief Richard Grasso, and of Boeing CEO Phil Condit's resignation this week. Disclosure of Mr. Grasso's $188 million pay package meant that a critical constituency, the exchange's members, lost faith in his leadership, and he had to resign.
"Nobody said Grasso did anything illegal," Sonnenfeld says. Nor were the conflict-of-interest charges that felled two other top Boeing executives leveled at Condit. But when "critical constituencies," such as Boeing's key customer - the US government - "lose faith in the leader, the boards are listening," he says.
This week, in the wake of the Boeing scandal, the Pentagon has postponed an unconventional deal with Boeing for air-refueling tankers - a costly deal that had stirred controversy.
Already, in the wake of scandals such as Enron and Tyco, boards face growing regulatory pressure to be "independent" from the management they oversee - even though top corporate officers usually have board seats. The relations between the top officers and the "outside" directors are less chummy than in the past.
At Disney, directors Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold resigned this week in protest - saying that it's CEO Michael Eisner who should go, due to the firm's tumbling stock price and other perceived missteps.
Meanwhile, American Airlines avoided bankruptcy last spring by obtaining major wage concessions from its rank and file workers. But CEO Donald Carty had to resign before then after a bankruptcy-protected pension package and huge bonuses for its executives came to light. It was not illegal, but was not seen as fair dealing, Mr. Sonnenfeld notes.
William George, a former CEO of Medtronic Inc. and author of "Authentic Leadership," holds that a company needs new leadership about every 10 years to maintain vitality and stimulate fresh ideas. But with short tenures - now sometimes as low as three years - executives may focus too much on quarterly performance to please Wall Street's short-term shareholders, rather than focusing on serving customers and thereby long-term shareholders.
While many see the new boardroom culture as a positive enhancement of "accountability," some experts worry the trend could go too far. Boards may become too adversarial with CEOs, make executives scapegoats when unforeseen corporate difficulties arise, and put revolving doors on the executive suite.
"Inevitably, the pendulum of public pressure will swing from correction to perfection," observes the BAH study.
Last year, though, executives in financial services, industrial companies, and consumer staples enjoyed exceptionally low turnover rates, according to the BAH study. Many CEOs at telecommunications companies lost their offices.
Part of this year's turmoil may have a more positive, forward-looking cause, some experts say.
Mr. Challenger suspects that corporate boards, seeing an upturn in the economy and a changing business environment, are checking to see if their top executives are the right ones to capture the new opportunities.
"A number of forces are in play," says Allan Cohen, a leadership expert at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. In addition to financial challenges and scandals, "CEO pay got way out of line relative to pay of others in the organization, and I think boards now feel they have to justify the high pay." So far, CEO pay has not been cut drastically, though huge gains from stock options have fallen, says Charles Peck, an expert at the Conference Board in New York. Indeed, nowadays most executives insist a "signing bonus" and a "golden parachute" to protec them financially if forced out.