CNBC25: Rebels, Icons and Leaders

Carl Icahn disruptive? ‘An honor,’ he says

Carl Icahn on the possibility of retiring
Carl Icahn on the possibility of retiring

Carl Icahn inspires any number adjectives from critics and supporters. But the billionaire and activist investor sees his role in the U.S. economy as more of a savior.

"I think what we do is not only—I really believe—must be done if we're going to retain our hegemony and even if we want to avoid another real collapse in the economy," he said. "I definitely believe we help a great deal. I do believe that."

No. 17 on the CNBC 25 list of people who have had the most profound impact on business since 1989.

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Carl Icahn
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Icahn relished the label of disruptor.

"Well, the way I define disruptive, it's an honor," he said. "I think being disruptive to a board and to a CEO that is doing a bad job, it's an honor to do that. It helps society."

Icahn also brushed off criticism of his bare-knuckled tactics.

"I have a lot of intellectual security," he said. "I look at these criticisms, and I'm sort of inured to it because I just think, 'Who the hell are these guys to say what they're saying?'"

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Referring to his Princeton University days, Icahn said that he was incredibly focused on his thesis.

"I worked for six months on nothing else. It wasn't to get a good mark. It was just to get it right," he said. "What I've seen is a common denominator for successful people—I don't mean just lucky; you know, you can get lucky for a year or two, get rich. But for people that make a lot of money, at least in business, or in any area, I think, the common denominator is an obsession, that they really are obsessed."

Getting it right, he added, was his primary goal.

"It's like the thesis, just getting it right, getting it done, almost a perfectionist. Money is a scorecard. I don't need the money anymore," he said, noting that most of his estimated $25 billion worth was pledged. "But I'm obsessed in getting something right."

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The 78-year-old native New Yorker said he had no plans to retire.

"I love what I do," Icahn said. "And what else am I going to do? Play shuffleboard in Florida somewhere? What the hell can I do? What would I do?"

—By CNBC's Bruno Navarro.