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Bill Gates’ divorce reminds us that high-flying CEOs need their spouses — but they don’t always remember that

Bill Gates’ divorce reminds us that high-flying CEOs need their spouses — but they don’t always remember that
Business
It’s unlikely anyone understands the dynamic at work in . Couples inhabit worlds unto themselves. But most people I know said they were saddened by the news, despite some despicable commentary on social media.

However, their divorce raises the issue of interpersonal relations and gender roles within power couples. It made me reflect on a chat I had years ago with the CEO of a major global corporation. After talking for a bit, he cut the call short; his wife was calling, adding she’d remind him that he wasn’t “the CEO at home.”

Another time, after we recorded a TV interview with the same executive, I went outside to grab a coffee and ran into him and his entourage in front of the building. He was puffing on a stogie.

“I thought you had a flight to catch,” I said, mentioning what he’d claimed when he’d departed the newsroom.

“The plane leaves when I say it leaves.”

It was a joke, but he clearly relished being in command of a private jet. How could that attitude not leak into someone’s home life? One can imagine how maddening it could be for the spouses of many CEOs to live with a person who gets treated as the sun by everyone else in his orbit.

There are other occupational hazards. Chief executives get to the top thanks to many factors and traits, among them assertiveness. I play doubles tennis occasionally with a former CEO, and I like him a lot, but he decides who plays with whom. For singles, he once announced we wouldn’t play a set — we’d do drills.

And try driving a car with a former boss riding shotgun: “Turn here. Turn there.”

While the CEO steers the ship, the traditional spousal role has been to hold everything else together — emotionally, socially and practically. When the late Wallace McCain bought Maple Leaf Foods in 1995, I interviewed him at the King Edward Hotel. Before rolling tape, we made small talk. That morning, I’d noticed the back of my tie sported the label “CEO.” “Wallace,” I said, turning it over, “you should be wearing mine.”

He laughed and then turned over his necktie, showing the numeral 2 written in ballpoint pen. Then, he turned over the lapel of his jacket, again revealing the same number. His wife, Margaret, he said, numbered his suits and ties so he’d be co-ordinated.

In the 2001 documentary series “Titans,” McCain’s late brother Harrison, a globe-trotting executive, tearfully described his wife, Marion (known as Billie), telling him on her deathbed that he’d been a wonderful husband but had given her lots of lonely nights.

And then there’s the reverse role in the all-too-unusual instance when the CEO is a woman. Maureen Kempston Darkes ran GM in Canada, as well as in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. When I interviewed her at a Women in Capital Markets luncheon about her career trajectory, her husband Larry was there. Afterward, he recounted accompanying her on a business trip to the Middle East where he said a big shot asked him with a straight face how many wives he had.

Like other humans, CEOs can also be bereft by themselves. Historically, they’ve relied on support from predominantly female spouses and their unpaid labour, not to mention assistance from office and domestic staff. The former chief executive of a major company once began weeping while playing golf with the late railroad CEO Hunter Harrison, confiding that his wife had left him and he couldn’t cope. He said he didn’t even have bed linens. Harrison told me he instructed his office to send the distraught man sheets and pillowcases.
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