about 2 years ago
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By Ruma Dubey

On Sunday, just as we were winding down our Diwali celebrations and were getting set for getting back to routine once again, Elder Pharmaceuticals Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Alok Saxena passed away. The company as such was mired in debt trouble and trading in the stock has long since been suspended. This death of the 52-year old CEO has pushed the company further into trouble.

This brought to mind a very pertinent and important question – should the health of leaders, be it political or company CEO be kept a secret from the public?

The health report of public figure, a leader whose very existence affects lives directly, is surely not a private matter. Sudden death or ill health of such big leaders, be it CEOs of companies or political parties could either make or break the future, especially when all hinges on one main man.

The death of Steve Jobs had raised questions during that time and debate had raged on about how health’s of such leaders should not be a confidential matter. But soon people forgot and moved on but the issue remains unresolved and maybe might raise its head once again, when we witness another unfortunate death or ill health.

Really, can the health of CEOs who run such big companies, remain private? With so much money riding on the company, which in turn means on the health of the CEO, can health issues be shrouded under blankets? We talk about corporate governance all the time but forget that this is not just about the financial and social health of the company but also about the physical health of the person leading the company.

In India, corporate governance is just about gaining significance but do we ever hear about the health of a CEO? Just as having a sound management is important to run the company, isn’t it equally important to know and be assured about the physical health of the promoter?

Take the case of Aditya Birla. At the age of 51 years, he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer and that too which had progressed to the last stage. He was bundled up the middle of a stormy night into an aircraft for treatment at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA. Here, everyone was told about him going for treatment for a slipped disc while employees said it was for treatment of pneumonia. It was only after his death that people knew the truth.

The greatness of Aditya Birla is undisputable and what he single handedly did for the country is part of Indian corporate folklore. At that time, in 1995 (he passed away on 1st Oct 1995) corporate governance was not in existence and maybe such transparency was not needed. But today, in 2013, if the CEO of a huge conglomerate is diagnosed with cancer, would it be morally right to not disclose this vital news?

The health of a person running a company is extremely important as he/she is directly responsible for the shareholders, partners and all those financially entwined with his company. A very pertinent example in this regard comes to mind, Anil Ambani. When he was part of RIL, he had gone for a roadshow abroad. At that time, he was on the “plumper” side. And at one of the conferences, a foreign investor told him that they would think twice before investing in a company whose management was not in good health. That got him thinking and he announced publicly that he would work hard and get fitter. Till date he takes that very seriously - he jogs, runs the marathon. And unarguably he is one of the fittest individuals in India though sadly, the same cannot be said about his companies!

Handing over the reins is a different thing but sudden death is what is worrying. No one can predict death. Even a completely hale and hearty person could suddenly fall down dead. Like Dewang Mehta, the head of NASSCOM who died of a heart attack in Sydney.

When the company is CEO-centric, when the CEO is the face of the company and controls all functions in the company, then from a moral or ethical angle the company may choose to disclose to the regulatory authority about the long absence of the CEO from business.

Maybe, just as SEBI stipulates that companies declare their financial health, maybe it is time to ask promoters to show a certificate of good health too.

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