Google CEO Larry Page and the healthy way to answer, ‘What’s wrong?’


Google CEO Larry Page missed the tech company’s annual meeting on Thursday, sparking speculation about his health. (EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS)

The tech industry was abuzz last week with a question: What’s wrong with Larry Page?

The Google CEO and co-founder was absent from the company’s annual meeting Thursday, at which Chairman Eric Schmidt told shareholders that Page had lost his voice would not be doing any public speaking engagements “for the time being.” Schmidt confirmed that Page “will be involved in all the strategic business decisions we make — just like today” and quipped that co-founder Sergey Brin “has said it may make Larry a better CEO because he will have to choose his words carefully.”  

But some have not seen it as a laughing matter. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management, told The Wall Street Journal that the board should inform shareholders about the cause and likely duration of Mr. Page's condition, which, if it’s degenerative, “could have a material adverse impact on the company.” Some Wall Street analysts have raised concerns. Industry observers are making comparisons to Steve Jobs, and to the speculations that went on over the illnesses that eventually led to the Apple CEO’s death.

To his credit, Page has shared something — that he lost his voice and that he won’t be at two upcoming events. (A Google spokesperson has said that will include this week’s developer conference and “our earnings call in mid July.”) Not being able to speak hardly puts someone on the same path as Steve Jobs, nor does it keep him from making key decisions or pointing his company in the right direction. It’s also possible the full extent of what’s ailing him isn’t known. Moreover, Google is hardly a company that’s short on other capable people ready to do the talking during his absence: Its chairman, after all, is the company’s former CEO.

If a CEO does know what’s going on, however, and if “there is nothing seriously wrong,” as the Journal reported Page to have said in an email to employees, I see no reason why one wouldn’t want to share the news. More specific information could calm any rattled nerves of investors, keep customers from worrying, and stop remote diagnoses from being offered in the press. More than likely, the matter would cease to be an issue: Everyone would say “get well soon,” and move on.

The key for leaders facing a dilemma like Page’s is transparency: Sharing the most possible information at any given moment. If the information can come out, it should. Leaders owe it to their shareholders, their employees and their customers.

More from On Leadership:

Mr. Schmidt goes to Washington: Google on the Hill

Tips for clearing your inbox and getting things done

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life


View Photo Gallery: Highlights from the commencement addresses given by politicians, celebrities and other notables this year.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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