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What if Jerry Yang is actually right?

Critics and shareholders of Yahoo's Jerry Yang are saying he has acted irrationally. But are those critics and shareholders so rational themselves?

So now even the New York Times is telling Yahoo's Jerry Yang that he has done wrong.

He has, apparently, shafted his shareholders, shown them nothing other than contempt.

But it was one line in the article that diverted me from my coffee and thoughts of Tiger Woods' irrational passion: "Your feelings aren't supposed to divert you from your fiduciary duty."

I don't know about you, but I'm quite big on feelings. They seem, somehow, to make humans a little more, well, human. And a little less like several of the more suspect participants at the Singularity Summit, where one speaker offered that "immoral behavior is really just irrational behavior".

It isn't just Mr. Nocera, but the majority of commenters on the myriad tech sites that my handlers are now encouraging me to read, who declare that Mr. Yang's behavior has been nothing short of scandalous.

Because it is irrational.

Shareholders like to think they are owners. A rational concept.

In fact, they are gamblers. The invitation to buy a share is an invitation to gamble on every single decision taken by a company's board. And every single mental skip taken by that company's customers, competitors, world economic conditions and, hey, what do you know, critics.

Some of those shareholders enjoy exalted positions at their own companies.

Where they make rational decisions such as hiring those who they know will be no threat to their hegemony, even if they know these people will not advance the company's prospects.

Such as hiring their friends, even though they know them to be professionally deficient.

Such as reducing their headcount in order to make this quarter's figures look good, even if they know customer service will slide over the following twelve months as a result.

Perhaps they will have moved on to their next jobs by then, leaving someone else to clean up the mess.


Everyone can (and does) theorize about Jerry Yang's motivations. About his feelings, indeed. And I'm sure he has plenty.

But if feelings have no place in fiduciary duty, then every corporate decision should only be judged according to its score on the Rationality Meter.

And any number of apparently rational decisions have proved to be utterly misguided. The Ford Edsel, the Fashion Cafe and BenGay aspirin all seemed very rational at the time.

Rigorous rationality policing would mean no one would ever write books about how decisions based on feelings, sometimes said to be generated in the intestinal area, created great and lasting organizations. Yes, even public entities.

The truth is that gamblers are very accepting of others' feelings, if the results of those feelings are that the gamblers make more money.

The other important ingredient in the 'make more money' segment is the question "When?"

Perhaps the results of Mr. Yang's feelings will be that shareholders will have less value for the next six months, the next nine.

Perhaps, if shareholders hold on to their shares, an unexpected outcome will suddenly make them very rich. And, no doubt, very silent.

Rationality really doesn't have such a great sway on human development.

If you haven't already, I recommend a day spent with "The Black Swan"by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a man who knows a thing or two about investing (and also has the ugliest home page on the web.)

At the very least, he suggests that the randomness of humanity has a far greater effect on our financial system than many would care to admit. (He is particularly loving towards economists.)

Shareholders knew something of Mr. Yang's feelings when they invested in Yahoo in the first place. Many of these shareholders are large, monied institutions.

They were surely very well-versed by the time Mr. Yang came back to lead the company again.

They were certainly entitled to remove their money at any time and put it into more rational places.

They didn't. And now they complain because Mr. Yang takes decisions that are reflective of his own personality, his own dastardly human feelings. Didn't he always?

And didn't some of these same people feel that Rupert Murdoch was mad to pay all those millions for MySpace? Wasn't he being irrational with his shareholders' money?

Now, they all admire his gut feeling.

How rational.