Seven CEO Myths

I have worked in multinational companies for 20 years and as a coach for the past 12 years, and there are seven CEO myths that I have learned:

1. The CEO has absolute power.

2. The CEO leads by consensus.

3. The CEO knows everything.

4. The CEO always picks the right talents.

5. The CEO has to be busy.

6. The CEO must always be calm.

7. The CEO does not need development.

Let’s discuss each of these myths in more detail.

1. The CEO has absolute power. Many people who have not been in a leading position dream that “One day if I can be a CEO, I will do … ” They think a CEO has absolute power. In reality, there are several constraints that prevent a CEO from exercising his or her power. They include basic corporate governance, check-and-balance mechanisms, and a board that will not allow certain things. Power is not about what you have _ power is about what other people give you. A CEO doesn’t have absolute power, but what he does have is a larger group of people to influence.

2. The CEO leads by consensus. A CEO has to be flexible in decision-making styles: democratic, autocratic, collective-participative, and consensus. Sometimes the right call is simply to buy time _ deciding not to decide. Unfortunately, many followers expect the CEO to seek consensus on every issue, particularly if there is a benefit to them. People forget that the CEO has a responsibility to various stakeholders _ not only to them. On several occasions the CEO has to make an unpopular call.

3. The CEO knows everything. It’s impossible for a CEO to know everything in today’s world. Instead the CEO must surround himself with people who have expertise in the required areas. That said, the CEO must have sound judgement _ he must make more right decisions than wrong ones. There is no CEO who hasn’t made a wrong decision.

In the book Judgment, authors Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis recount a conversation between a new associate lawyer and a senior partner. “Tell me,” the younger man says, “Why is it you have this big reputation for judgement?”

“Well, I guess I’ve made the right decision enough times,” replies the partner.

“If you don’t mind me bothering you, what was the basis on which you made the right decision?”

“Oh, that comes from experience.”

“One last question, what’s the experience based on?”

“Wrong decisions.”

4. The CEO always picks the right talents. A CEO told to me that he’s not good at recruiting talent. In the past five years he hired two key executives who were not right for the job. I referred him to some comments Jack Welch made in Winning: “Hiring is hard. I’d say as young manager, I picked the right people about 50% of the time. Thirty years later, I had improved to about 80%.” In other words, the man Fortune magazine named Manager of the Century in 1999 still made lots of mistakes.

5. The CEO has to be busy. Some CEOs are extremely busy and some aren’t. It depends on the situation and style. But I have met several great CEOs who mange time effectively and still have time to do other important things in their lives. The “too busy CEO” may in fact be someone who has poor time management, surrounds himself with weak followers, or enjoys doing things instead of managing and thinking.

6. The CEO must always be calm. It’s nice to have a clam and stable person as a CEO. But a CEO is a human being too. He or she should be allowed to have feelings and show emotion from time to time. It’s okay to see a CEO being angry, disappointed or feeling down. It’s not healthy _ or authentic _ for a CEO to suppress all emotion. Nevertheless, mood swings that are hard to predict would be bad. In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves write that EQ is so critical to success that it accounts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs. Ninety percent of high performers are high in EQ, compared with just 20% of low performers.

7. The CEO does not need development. In typical leadership development sessions, a CEO does the opening speech and then leaves. Very rarely do you see the CEO also attend the session. Hence, from time to time the CEO practises something totally opposite to what has been taught in the sessions. A CEO needs to reinvent himself all the time _ the world is so dynamic. Apart from attending a development session, a CEO can develop himself by various ways such as reading, monitoring and coaching. E-learning and web-based seminars are also good options.

You can learn to live with any CEO by focusing on strength rather than the weakness. There is no perfect human being and no perfect CEO either.