The Heroic CEO (again)

Late last year I was at one of the usual round of Christmas
I attend each year. Also as usual, I found myself talking to
a new acquaintance explaining that I work as a Leadership Mentor when a third
person joined the group. The conversation moved to executive remuneration
and specifically CEO remuneration. During the conversation my new found colleague
turned to me and said

“You’d know this — the CEO makes the difference”.

I replied “The CEO makes a difference.”

He was unconvinced and repeated his earlier assertion.

At this stage I deferred — neither of us was going to change our position.
If my colleague is reading this I must say, with greatest respect, I still
disagree with you.

And still, after 20 years as a consultant, I remain absolutely amazed at the
predominance of this view. It is beyond the scope of this short piece to delve
into a deep discussion of Wilfred
, but it seems to me that the unchallengeable way in which this
view of the messianic CEO is discussed in business almost indicates a very
large group Basic Assumption Dependency.

Briefly, Major Wilfred Bion, whose task it was to provide therapy to thousands
of soldiers returned from the Second World War, after studying the many many
groups he worked with developed a description of group behaviour in which every
group was, in fact, two groups — the Work Group and the Basic
Assumption Group
. The Work Group was the group that any observer could
see. A group assigned to and attempting to complete a task. Bion suggested
that in addition to this the group behaved as if some basic assumption
were true — ie it was simultaneusly operating at two levels. The visible
(work group level) and the invisible (basic assumption) level.

From his observations, Bion suggested that all groups acted with one of three
Basic Assumptions: Dependency, Fight-Flight or Pairing. For the purposes
of this piece I will only discuss the first of these — Dependency — and
briefly at that.

Anything I write here will undoubtably reflect what has already be written
by others, so I will simpy quote from

In this state, the group seeks a leader who will relieve them of all anxiety. This leader is thus invested with omnipotence and is expected to be able to solve all problems.

If this magical leader does not perform up to scratch, then the leader will be attacked and a replacement sought. Thus a cycle of leader-seeking, idealization and denigration occurs.

Does this sound familiar? The company is not performing as well as we want
it to so we bring in a new CEO. If the CEO is any good, they can solve all
the company’s problems. If they don’t solve all the problems then they are
not up to scratch and everyone from the board to the business press will point
out there shortcomings.

Yes, I have seen many CEOs and leaders who have almost single handedly wrecked
their organisations and I have seen a very few individuals who have inspired
their teams to achieve beyond their wildest dreams. But most CEOs I have met
are somewhere in the middle. They lead a multi talented team — a team
in which they had only a small part in putting together. Sure they can set
the tone for the day to day work of the company’s employees and they have the
final say on the most important decisions. However, the company’s success or
otherwise depends first and foremost on the uniqueness of its products and
services and the way they are marketed. This in turn is dependent on the company’s
culture. Something that is built into its DNA. The CEO can’t change this. They
can influence it. They can make decisions that make best use of it. They can
affect the performance levels of their people to some degree. But they can’t
single handedly mandate and make happen large scale change.

I was reminded of this when I read this
by Greg Baum in Melbourne’s The
yesterday. For those of you from non-Cricket playing countries,
I may need to tell you that the Australian
Cricket Team
has just suffered
its first loss in a series at home since 1992/1993 (having lost the Second
to South Africa.)

Baum notes the predictable reaction

In the aftermath, fingers of blame
have been pointed in all directions: the selectors, the captain, Cricket
Matthew Hayden, Andrew


Captain Ricky
has worn the brunt of the criticism.
This is the captain’s lot, but it is also a manifestation of the syndrome
by which the leader of a sporting team — the captain in cricket, the
coach in football — is made not only to account for his team, but
personify it, so obviating the need for any more complex
or subtle study
Hence, Ponting’s failings are Australia’s, Australia’s Ponting’s, all in
one soundbite. (My emphasis added)

Again, does this sound familiar? The second sentence eminently qualifies
Baum as a business analyst. Particularly the part I emphasised.

Buam hits the nail on the head regarding the problem with our belief in
the messianic
It is too simple and it obviates the need for any deeper
study of the organisation.

This would not be so much a problem if the wellbeing of us all was not
bound up in business. Our governments provide grants, low interest loans
and incentives to business because they believe it will grow the economy.
As we have seen in recent times, we all depend on a healthy economy. When
the economy dips we all suffer.

How much more efficient would business be if it were not transfixed by
the fantasy of a heroic CEO?

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