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CEOs As Leaders

CEOs As Leaders

Fundamentally, two things can be said about Chief Executive Officers, better known as CEOs.

The first is that they carry the responsibility to provide direction for their organisations, whether those entities are private or public. Direction is generally thought of in terms of vision and leadership. Vision is the unreachable horizon - the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow, and leadership is the demonstrable expression - the proof - of what each one needs to do to reach it.

The second thing that can be said about CEOs is that no matter what their vision is, by virtue of their position in the organisation they possess the ultimate authority to make it happen. As the American president Harry S. Truman once said, “The buck stops here.” There’s no one to whom CEOs can pass on to in a difficult decision, or an easy one come to that. The final determination on anything is down to the CEO. To look at it another way, the obvious is stated in the title: Chief. There can only be one chief. All the rest are “Indians.”

Taken together, these two characteristics - leadership and authority - make the job of the CEO an awesome responsibility because whatever else happens, the person in that role is the one who’ll be held accountable for the results, whatever they are.

This series of three articles is designed to give you a broad understanding of what the best CEOs look like.

In this first article, you’ll learn about the leadership component.


How do you define leadership?

In other words, what does leadership look like to you? It’s important that you think about this because it will determine what you do, a topic we’ll consider in more detail in another article.

Leadership, broadly speaking, is about influencing others to do what you want them to do, but scholars admit there are probably as many definitions as there are people. That means that the good news is that you can define it however you want to. However, the bad news is that your idea of what it is probably won’t match the ideas of those you lead, a problem we’ll discuss in the article on authority.

An organisation that has no leadership will wallow. Different parts of it may make some progress, but anything beyond that is impossible, and that’s because no one will know who to follow or what direction to take. They’ll all do what seems right to them, but their efforts will be random.

Not only that, but everyone’s idea of success will be different. There will be no standard against which the performance of all will be measured. As one sage has put it, “if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?”

It’s the job of the CEO to make it clear to you where everyone else should go, and because they’ve all been given the same goal, they can then follow that person in the full faith that that person will lead them there.

Actually, that’s not quite true. When you follow the directions of your CEO, then it means that everyone is working toward the same ends; but simply going or attempting to go in that direction doesn’t guarantee success. The one thing you can be sure of, however, is that without it, failure is more likely than not.

CEOs have no peers

The job of the CEO means that you are without peers. It’s lonely because it’s just you, and that adds a stress component that no one else shares or can share. And that’s because it’s only when it’s just you that you can feel as isolated as you do. The old saying that “it’s lonely at the top” is true.

You can ask for the opinions of others, but where there’s no clear solution; no decision that doesn’t carry some mix of pros and cons, the decision is entirely yours.

You probably know that the D-Day landings were originally scheduled for June 5th 1944, but bad weather caused Eisenhower to delay it by a day. He had a staff of commanders that advised him, but the decision was entirely his. No one could make it for him.

He was the Supreme Allied Commander, which meant that he was also the sole Allied Commander. He worked directly for the President of the United States who had vested in him that responsibility. Famously, Eisenhower said, while considering the June 6th date, “I am quite positive that the order must be given.” It was an order that only he could give. Once he gave it, then everyone else did their part, but until he gave it, nothing happened.

It’s easy to think in retrospect that his decision to launch the invasion was an easy one. It wasn’t. A few days before the launch, one of the commanders on his staff, British Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory told him that there would be too many casualties among the glider troops, and that the whole thing should be called off. And Ike himself pre-wrote the message that he would give the press had the invasion failed.

Eisenhower, alone, had to weigh the possibility of failure against his decision to launch the invasion.

Would you have had the courage to make the decision that he made?

What does leadership look like?

CEOs lead by effectively communicating their vision of the organisation to those who will implement the directives designed to achieve it.

That may sound like fancy, loosey-goosey, and meaningless language. It may be one reason why there are so many definitions of it. It’s difficult to define, and everyone has their own way of doing so.

There are at least five ways that leadership is exercised.

Leadership through strategy

The first way that leadership is exercised is through strategy, though defining strategy has as many problems as defining leadership; there’s no agreed definition of it. Some think it refers to planning, others implementing, and some others think of all of the possible combinations of both in-between.

The fact is, however, that it doesn’t matter how you define it, what matters is that you do it. And it’s because you are the ultimate leader that others look to you for guidance on where to go.

You could call it the Huckleberry Finn White Picket Fence Painting Strategy, and it could have nothing to do with painting anything. You simply need to know what results you want your organisation to achieve over what timescale, and then provide the resources that will enable your employees to get you there.

Leadership through service

The second way that leadership is exercised is through service.

Thirty years ago, the idea of servant leadership arrived on the scene. Since then, it has grown into the principles that underlie what the best CEOs do. They lead by dropping their airs and graces and mucking in with the rest. That you care more about people than profits is exemplified in the servant-leader, and those in your charge will follow you to the ends of the earth if you do it. They’ll also abandon you if you don’t.

Leadership by example

The third way that leadership is exercised is by example.

There are many who proclaim the importance of doing this, but often the example they provide is not one that anyone would want to follow. This can be a good way to measure the example that you set. Is there a critical mass of folks who follow your example? If not, then that’s something you need to take a look at. You need to find out why they don’t and be willing to listen to their criticisms.

That said, there are many who do, and when they do, it has a trickle-down effect. That is, the leadership qualities that they exhibit tend to show up in those managers that they lead.

For example, if they’re honest, then so are their direct reports. If they maintain integrity, then so do the managers who work for them. If they’re willing to cooperate, rather than to dictate, then so will those under them. In turn, those managers will also lead those beneath them in a similar manner, partly because they know that they have the support of those who manage them, and partly because it’s seen to be the right thing to do.

Servant leadership is an example of leadership, though it’s not the only one. Others include change agent and team leader. And these examples aren’t limited to CEOs. That’s because when you lead by example, you are filling a role.

To lead is an action verb. It describes what you do. And however you do it depends largely on the role that you’re playing when you do it.

CEOs lead by example when they behave like the “head honcho” that they are. Conversely, they stop leading and cease to act like people in that position when they try to be anything else.

Leadership through adaptability

The fourth way in which leadership is exercised is through adaptability. You do this by changing your approach according to whatever is going on at the time. If you foresee that the market is on the rise, then you act in one way; if it’s declining, then in another. If people are underperforming, then you take steps to correct that, but you don’t do the same thing day after day regardless of what’s going on around you.

When a navy commander wants to launch aircraft from the carrier they command, one of the first things they do is turn the ship into the wind. While everyone else is preparing the jets for the launch, the commander of the ship is getting it to point in the right direction.

That’s what you do.

This is not to be confused with vision. Vision is determining the direction that you want to go in, but unless you muster everyone to do so, you can continue to go the wrong way ad infinitum.

Adaptability means that you’re doing what only you can do so that what everyone else does will matter.

Adaptability also includes transparency and that means that you don’t try to hide the truth. It means that you’re open and honest with people. The goal isn’t for you to build a kingdom, but to serve those that you lead.

Leadership through trust

The fifth way that leadership is exercised is through trust, which includes reliability.

Can you be trusted to back people when they need you to? Can you be relied upon to do what you say you’ll do, or do you tend to opt for the easy way out.

Can you be trusted to give credit where credit’s due?

Maybe you’ve never thought about it like this, but the US Medal of Honour winners - those who are cited for bravery at the highest level, and who often sacrifice themselves for their comrades - are primarily those in the enlisted ranks - the men (or women). Part of that could be because there’s a larger pool of them to start with, but it’s more likely because they are the ones in the trenches. They are the ones who are in the field fighting the battles. The officers tend to hang back because they are responsible for planning and strategizing, rather than actually doing or fulfilling the plan.

Anyone who exhibits the bravery required to win the Medal of Honour may do so when the time comes, but woe to the officer who tries to take credit for valor that was shown by someone else.

Can you be trusted to give all the credit to others?

True leadership is observable. It’s visible. It’s something that everyone can see.

As CEO of your organisation, there should be a demonstrable difference between what you do on a day-to-day basis, and what every other person does. And that’s because the things that make you the CEO are different. No one else carries your responsibilities.

That doesn’t mean that you’re aloof from everyone, or anyone come to that. It doesn’t mean that you breeze in and out of the office like a king on a flying carpet either. You’re a real person who works with real people, and you need to act like it, but you do need to make sure that you spend your time doing CEO activities - things that no one else can do, because if you don’t do them, then who will? 

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