The Character: Morton Stickler

Morton Stickler appears toward the end of Sable Shadow and The Presence.  Formerly a non-executive director of United Carbide, he stages a board room coup and becomes chief executive of this very large (fictional) corporation.  He persuades the board that the strategy of the current CEO – to make gradual changes that will improve the profitability of the corporation – is short-changing the shareholders.  He proposes a different strategy: sell off large chunks of the business and buy more profitable pieces.

The reader will almost instantly dislike Morton Stickler.  He seems totally self-absorbed, dismissive of others to the point of rudeness, and totally convinced that his way is the only way.  He is going to prove that not only could he make a huge fortune in venture capital, but that he is also a brilliant executive.  He uses very simple business models that were developed by management consultants to gain new clients.  He does not like people who disagree with him.

Are there really people like Morton Stickler loose in the world of big business?  In my experience, the answer is ‘yes’.  I have to say that I never knew a CEO who had all of Morton’s negative characteristics, but there were some I knew who, if one selected their individual bad characteristics, could be combined into Morton Stickler.

But this then prompts two questions: how does someone like Morton Stickler get to become CEO of a big corporation like United Carbide?  And, once ‘the powers that be’ find out what he is really like, why don’t they get rid of him?  The partial answer to both questions is that there is a dysfunctional board: a board which is cliquish, composed of prima donnas, who have little management experience, and who do not see themselves as servants of the shareholders.  Boards like this may be relatively rare nowadays, but they weren’t so rare a generation ago.  Board members could be very impressed by a guy like Morton.  He’s confident, he’s made tens of millions, and he promises to make them all look like heroes.  When things go wrong, a guy like Morton can find ways to cover up or divert attention from his failings.  And, perhaps interestingly, guys like Morton may just be lucky, or paradoxically, their harsh medicine is just what the business needs.

In any case, Henry, the key character in Sable Shadow and The Presence falls foul of Morton, and he is fired.  But he is fired in circumstances which make the loss of his job – important as it was – seem trivial.  We don’t learn what happened to Morton, except that he (and United Carbide) had to pay Henry for wrongful dismissal and slander.  Did they pay him enough?  Perhaps the test of ‘enough’ is that in his new identity, it isn’t a topic of concern for Henry, much as he may have disliked Morton when he worked for him.

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