While waiting in a big Manhattan hospital about 15 years ago, I glimpsed the chairman of one of the world’s biggest banks in a consulting room. I never found out why he was there. If he was ill, his employer never said and the man is now enjoying a long and apparently healthy retirement.

But the statement by Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, that he has curable throat cancer reminded me how companies have improved disclosure of their leaders’ physical health since.

One pioneer of honesty as the best policy was Warren Buffett. In early 2000 Berkshire Hathaway, the investment company he heads, dismissed market-moving rumours that Mr Buffett was in hospital in a critical condition. When the billionaire did go in for treatment later that year, to have benign polyps removed from his colon, he had to disclose more. Two years ago, revealing he had prostate cancer, Mr Buffett was positively bumptious, describing his condition as “not remotely life-threatening or even debilitating in any meaningful way”.

Mr Dimon modelled his statement on that declaration and Mr Buffett was on hand to wish the banker well and praise his transparency.

Since at least 2009, when Steve Jobs and Apple equivocated publicly about the reasons for his leave of absence, investors and corporate governance experts have agreed with Mr Buffett that when “it’s a material fact . . . you get it out fast and you get it out accurately and if there is any big change [then] you get that out there subsequently”.

The demand for openness can only increase. People such as Mr Buffett and Rupert Murdoch (who was similarly frank about his prostate cancer in 2000) are at the vanguard of a generation of older business leaders, some of whom will hold executive power well into their 80s.

Even after their executive careers, veterans go on to serve on boards, manage other people’s money, and advise on critical areas of public policy and private enterprise. Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman, was in the running to be Barack Obama’s first Treasury secretary at the age of 81, at which point, according to his biography, he was still working “as though he was a 30-year-old”.

The political world remains a last bastion of secrecy. Cover-ups shielded the ailing John Kennedy and cancer-stricken François Mitterrand from rumour. But had Mr Volcker taken the job, markets would rightly have wanted to know about the octogenarian’s physical health.

The type of message Mr Dimon issued to staff and investors is, however, starting to look old-fashioned in a world of digital and shareable health and fitness data.

At the Davos World Economic Forum this year, Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.com, recounted how fellow technology entrepreneur Michael Dell had called him the week before to ask if he was feeling all right. Online data that Mr Benioff and Mr Dell were sharing from their Fitbit fitness monitors had alerted the computer magnate that his friend was not working out.

The desire to track such data is unstoppable. Jawbone, a Fitbit rival, was distributing its monitors to Davos delegates this year in return for the right to analyse their collective fitness during the forum. (It discovered, unremarkably, that Davos man and woman walk and sleep less than non-Davos users.) I am still compulsively logging step and sleep data via my wristband, but I am wary of sharing them. Many users, including lots of driven technology executives, are not.

As wearable health monitors become more sophisticated, some companies, rather than sending their CEO to a public hospital for a check-up twice a year, may choose to monitor them remotely. What is good enough for high-performance teams of athletes could come to be seen as essential for executives looking for an edge over rivals.

Shared data will then become tradeable insider information, as Mr Benioff pointed out. The answer to Mr Dell’s query was that Mr Benioff had had a cold and decided to skip his workout. But imagine if, instead, the interruption to his regime had signalled to his network of high-powered friends and investors that he had suffered a stroke.

Mr Dimon’s openness is laudable. Transparency must be the norm for material problems. But as more managers track their every breath or heartbeat, they will eventually have to draw a line about how much they tell the world – or even their own peers – about how great they feel.

andrew.hill@ft.com
Twitter: @andrewtghill

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