World's best CEOs? Gilead, Allergan, Novo and Valeant make top 10

Gilead CEO John Martin

What's almost as good as positive press for a drug brand? Kudos for the company itself. After all, drugmakers are routinely featured in scandalous headlines--bribery investigations, multibillion-dollar legal settlements, allegations of overpricing and hotbox marketing, and, most recently, the millions shelled out to U.S. doctors--for good or for ill.

So, should image-minded pharma folk be stoked by the fact that four industry CEOs made Harvard Business Review's list of the world's best chief executives? Let's consider.

First off, who's on the list and why? Gilead Sciences ($GILD) CEO John Martin comes in second, behind Amazon's ($AMZN) Jeff Bezos. Martin has presided over enormous growth at Gilead, with its market cap ballooning by $128 billion under his leadership, HBR notes. Growth in shareholder returns? A whopping 6919%, adjusted according to industry parameters.

Allergan's ($AGN) David Pyott captured fourth place, a distinction that might help sway shareholders mulling a takeover by Valeant Pharmaceuticals ($VRX) (or not, considering Valeant CEO J. Michael Pearson's ranking below). Market value growth under Pyott? $50 billion, HBR notes. And shareholder returns have grown by 1929%.

Lars Rebien Sorensen, CEO of Novo Nordisk ($NVO), snagged sixth place, with $101 billion in revenue growth since he took the reins in 2000. Shareholder returns grew by 1214%.

Finally, there's Valeant's Pearson in eighth place. Since his advent in 2008, Valeant's market cap has leapt by $44 billion, and industry-adjusted returns grew by 1100%.

Obviously, HBR has a particular slant on CEO quality: It's about market cap growth and shareholder returns. As such, the fact that drugmaker chiefs are so highly regarded might just reinforce the public perception that pharma is more focused on numbers than on patients--fairly or not.

The journal appears to make no distinction between growth by acquisition and cost-cutting (Valeant) and growth without M&A, by focusing on the mission at hand (Novo Nordisk). Forget the idea of considering corporate citizenship; apart from excluding any CEOs who'd been convicted or arrested, HBR didn't.

"We acknowledge, of course, that being a good CEO is about far more than just investment performance," the article says. "And investors certainly aren't the only stakeholder that need tending to." But adding those qualitative aspects would ruin the objectivity of the ranking HBR says--though the journal hopes for "equally concrete ways to account for 'intangibles.' " Someday.

- read the HBR ranking

Special Reports: The 15 highest-paid biopharma CEOs of 2013 - John Martin, Gilead - David Pyott, Allergan