The Week the C.E.O.s Got Smacked

Mr. Kelly has reason to be worried. After all, when C.E.O.s do push for real, meaningful change, the judgment can be swift and harsh.

In 2015, David Crane was chief executive of NRG, one of the country’s largest power producers — and one of its largest polluters. Mr. Crane believed that NRG had a moral and business imperative to transition to renewable sources of power generation.

His vision for a clean energy company made Mr. Crane the talk of the industry, and animated idealistic employees. But when Mr. Crane asked the board to endorse a plan for NRG to be carbon neutral by 2040, they balked. One board member took him aside and said, “Are you crazy? You can’t say that.”

That director was right. When it became clear to investors that Mr. Crane was serious about his plans, NRG stock started to fall, and Mr. Crane was out.

In the end, it didn’t matter that Mr. Crane believed he was on the right side of history, or that his staff was behind him. “The fact that employees liked it was overwhelmed by the fact that the board didn’t like it, and investors didn’t care,” he said. (Mr. Crane, though, may have simply been ahead of his time. Since he lost his job, the cost of renewable energy has continued to decline, and several large utilities have pledged to become carbon neutral.)

Mr. Dickerson can relate. For all his efforts building Etsy’s culture and advancing environmental causes, his investors just weren’t that interested.

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“At the end of the day, it’s still mostly about stock price if you’re a public company C.E.O.,” Mr. Dickerson said. “When the rubber meets the road and you’re sitting in the room with investors, they are looking at spreadsheets and asking you about what the numbers are going to look like.”

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