If you Meet the Chief Executive on the Road, Kill him!

When a business’s top executive is burdened with aggrandized ideas about what he is capable of, then he and those working under him lose sight into the nature of contemporary leadership

January 4 2013 by Byron Woollen


The chief executive who desires a higher level of performance from his senior leaders is often unaware of the way in which unspoken thoughts and feelings about him that are obstructing their optimal performance. The idea that senior leaders reporting to the CEO may be rendered more passive because of the aggrandized attitudes that they hold about their boss can seem absurd to the top leader of a company; he often feels only too aware of his faults. But in many cases the unrealized potential of a senior team is due to those reporting to the chief executive quietly holding an inflated assessment of their CEO’s powers and having distorted ideas about his appropriate role. These are not instances where the unrealistic adulation of the CEO reaches the pathological extreme of the cult-like leadership defined by the likes of famous “super-egos” such as Lehman’s Dick Fuld, or Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski. On the contrary, even a relatively modest or introverted chief executive may unwittingly be contributing to an erosion of his team’s potential by not being vigilant of the fact that his reports will tend to idealize their leader. It’s a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that a top leader can allow his sense of having a “close working relationship” to distract him from cues [see Side Bar II] signaling that the senior leaders reporting to him are not providing what the business needs.

By inadvertently allowing important leaders within the company to burden him with unrealistic ideas about his capacity, the chief executive engenders a more passive culture among his direct reports. It was within such a leadership dynamic that Lee Kun-hee of Samsung or An Wang—a brilliant but distinctly low-key man of modest presentation—failed in their roles as chief executives. The necessary checks and balances that should have been offered by the different sides of a senior leadership team were displaced by an inflated idea about what the CEO could do for the team and the business.

Idealizing—holding unrealistic attitudes about someone’s powers and potential— the CEO can happen in different degrees and can be difficult to recognize, but the symptoms related to this corrosive phenomenon are readily apparent within a senior team. For example, there will tend to be:

  • A lack of innovative thinking or creative debate during meetings,
  • An overreliance on the CEO to capture and define relevant issues for meeting agendas,
  • Differences of opinion being shared one-on-one with the chief executive outside of meetings rather than in them,
  • Team members who are looking for the CEO to manage accountability within the team rather than peers holding one another accountable,
  • Meetings devoted to “reporting out” rather than dialogue, debate and decision-making,
  • Functions headed by the senior leaders becoming increasingly siloed and prioritizing territorial concerns over collaboration.

In some cases these signs of an idealized chief executive are evident from early in the life of a start up and in others they emerge quietly over time. For example, the CEO of a very large and well-reputed hedge fund was surprised to find that his management committee had slowly become populated with partners who were so distracted by the myth of their boss that they withheld information and opinion out of concern that being frank with him held too much risk. This was despite the fact that the CEO had a long, consistent history of never retaliating against bad news or opposing opinion.

Or, to offer a richer description of the way that idealization evolves, consider the case of Scott, a top executive with a healthy but not extreme self-esteem. Scott founded and served as CEO of Haystack, a successful non-profit dedicated to offering housing solutions to mitigate poverty. His senior team was composed of seasoned veterans, most of whom had worked for him for well over a decade. In private, the Haystack leaders would speak realistically about their CEO, letting me know that “I’ve known him, good and bad, for a long time. I get Scott”. But as they functioned in their roles on the Haystack senior team, these same executives were averse to even the most appropriate challenge to Scott’s opinion. The reverence that Scott’s direct reports had for their boss had grown to the point that it destabilized the leadership team. As Haystack’s success escalated, Scott had risen from a local success to someone who was being recognized at a national level. Private donations to the company skyrocketed, people in exclusive political circles sought Scott out and it soon got to the point where he spent most of his time on the road with rich potential private contributors, politicians and board members. The reaction on the part of Scott’s direct reports was to feel burdened by the increased responsibility while simultaneously attributing Haystack’s success solely to their CEO. Offline, the senior leaders could still speak in a more balanced way about Scott, but as a team they forfeited productive collaboration with their CEO in favor of supporting an aggrandized feeling about the man.

At a time when Haystack most needed an empowered leadership team, the members passively followed Scott’s preferences. With no significant pushback, Scott continued to run his organization, as one of his reports told me, “as if he was the sole proprietor”. Decisions and authorities that were more appropriate to people one and two levels down were being held tightly by Scott. Coming off the road he would, with the best intentions, “dive bomb” back into the organization creating confusion by giving the same directive to multiple people and tasking employees without coordinating with their managers. His reports complained to one another but raised no issues with Scott. The potential of this executive team was further stymied by working in a hub-and-spoke team format that Scott preferred (with himself at the center controlling information and decision-making) rather than opening up the potential of his reports as a team of networked professionals who could better support him by taking up greater authority, responsibilities, decision-making and responsibility for holding one another accountable.

Haystack’s story is an example of a problem that repeats itself to different degrees in the C-suite across countless businesses: due to a host of factors, the CEO becomes aggrandized in the eyes of those around him and in response, senior leaders unwittingly fall into a passive posture within their role. The support that any chief executive needs in terms of productive pushback from his closest colleagues dissolves as these senior leaders relinquish degrees of authority that the business needs them to take up. This sets off an insidious dynamic that can be difficult to recognize because rather than making the CEO uneasy, he buys in to the oversized reverence because it can provide a false sense of relief from the considerable stress inherent in holding his role.

This is an ancient problem. The dramatic and paradoxical Buddhist koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” was promulgated by the leader to teach followers to guard against their tendency to regress into passive idolatry rather than take responsibility for the potential within themselves. When a business’s top executive is burdened with aggrandized ideas about what he is capable of, then he and those working under him lose sight into the nature of contemporary leadership. The “great man” notions of leadership have expired along with its lists and sets of character attributes; leadership is increasingly a co-active process dependent on the relational confluence between a leader and his followers. For the contemporary CEO, maintaining a productive dynamic with his reports is critical because his charge is to define and support an environment in which collaboration, dialogue, mutual enforcement of accountability, empowerment and distributed leadership can be applied in response to the rapid change and complexity in the current business environment.

The Five Steps for CEOs to Manage Idealization in Senior Leaders

  1. Remember, it’s the followers: The energy of idealization begins with those who revere the idol, not the idol itself. The chief executive needs to be vigilant about the ways to deflect actions that foster or reflect an unrealistic reverence for his abilities. For example, the CEO of a hedge fund, when asked by the partners in the firm to solve a disagreement that existed among them, gave the problem back to them with a deadline to return with a solution. It would have been tempting to serve a Salomon-like role and resolve the partners’ conflict through his perceived greater wisdom and power, but instead he recognized that to fix the problem for them would mean being enlisted into an unnecessary role and allowing his senior leadership body to avoid their own potential.
  2. Anoint a Lieutenant: It is impractical to expect a leader to consistently see through the multiple ways in which he is being enlisted into a counterproductive work relationship. To manage the forces of idealization, CEOs can enlist a trusted and less susceptible report. Such a lieutenant may qualify for the role because of maturity, a longer and closer personal relationship with the CEO or a superior emotional intelligence coupled with a particular talent for insight into group dynamics. In one team it was the junior partner on the management committee who had the latter attributes and often served as counsel to his CEO when the partner became aware that his peers were defaulting to a position that ignored their actual authority and potential.
  3. Review and Negotiate: Like the proverbial frog in the pot waiting patiently to be boiled, team dynamics subsume effective work practices in ways that are not immediately clear to the members. To protect leadership teams from falling into an unproductive posture in relation to the team leader, CEOs can schedule regular and structured feedback between themselves and their team. The Role Negotiation Process is a straightforward exercise in which the team agrees to a set of requests for their CEO; what they would like the CEO to keep doing, what they would like him to do more of and what they would like him to stop doing. In turn, the CEO has the opportunity to offer the same structured feedback to his team.
  4. Disband the Hub-and-Spoke Team Model: In the early developmental stages of a business, when structures are less complex and communication is more immediate, having the leader at the “center of the storm” can be a distinct advantage. But when the CEO misses the necessary adaptation of pulling himself from the hub role on the team, the senior leaders under him are not able to build the network of expectations, communication, shared decision-making and holding one another accountable. The result is that all of these crucial team processes continue to pass through the CEO despite the fact that the organization has grown far too complex to be supported by a senior team relying on the hub-and-spoke format. An aggrandized attitude toward the CEO is fostered when senior leaders are trapped in the hub-and-spoke team format and must rely too heavily on working through the team leader to gain information and to exert influence in the leadership team.
  5. Focus Attention on the Business and the Organization, not You: A middle-aged CEO of a mid-sized firm invited me to help him work on succession planning. During meetings he consistently referred to what was important for him; he rewarded obsequious behavior by offering sycophants greater access and he tried to convey a sense of responsibility for the business by routinely reminding everyone that it was his “name on the door”. In the end, he had become so comfortable with the focus on his needs that he couldn’t bring himself to relinquish the dynamic with his reports. Successful succession was impossible.

Is Idealization Destabilizing your Senior Leaders?

  • A lack of innovative thinking or creative debate during meetings: Maintaining the favor of the CEO becomes more important than performance of the business. Challenging the status quo and taking reasonable risks with the CEO or other members of the team are avoided to maintain harmony.
  • An overreliance on the CEO to capture and define relevant issues for meeting agendas: Important issues that should filter up through the organization to senior leaders are ignored or withheld. The CEO finds himself managing too much of the agenda and over functioning to lead the team meetings.
  • Differences of opinion being shared one-on-one with the chief executive outside of meetings rather than in them: Senior leaders share opinions about their peers or performance in other areas “offline”. This triangulation promotes a sense of greater connection with the CEO by holding a privileged conversation and potentially undermining a peer. The relationship with the CEO is deemed to be more critical than the performance of the organization.
  • Team members looking for the CEO to manage accountability within the team rather than peers holding one another accountable: Authority and accountability are the lifeblood of a high performing leadership group. Leaders who fail to support the CEO and their peers by monitoring accountability across the team have fallen into a passive posture out of the belief that the CEO is the only one capable of this critical function.
  • Meetings devoted to “reporting out” rather than dialogue, debate and decision-making: Meetings become a “ritual” devoted to passively taking in information that could be disseminated in other formats. The collective and implicit agreement to prioritize harmony blocks opportunities to support the CEO with new ideas and with appropriate challenges to his own thinking.
  • Functions headed by senior leaders becoming increasingly siloed and prioritizing territorial concerns over collaboration: Senior leaders who avoid high-level collaboration in favor of preserving a sense of the CEO’s approval will tend to guard their areas. Rigid boundaries between functional areas exacerbate unproductive conflict.

Byron Woollen, Ph.D., (http://podiaconsulting.com/press/) is the founder and managing partner of Podia Consulting, a firm that specializes in change management, leadership consultation and advising leaders on organizational effectiveness.