Lencioni: Why Do You Want To Be A CEO?

At a pivotal time for leadership in America, bestselling author Patrick Lencioni asks an uncomfortable question: Why do you want to be a leader in the first place?

The idea came to him in a room full of CEOs. Patrick Lencioni, the bestselling author known for business classics like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Advantage and The Ideal Team Player, was sitting in on a roundtable conversation with a dozen or so chief executives from a variety of businesses—small, medium, large. He was talking about improving teamwork and organizational health by first creating a culture of trust among the CEO and their senior reports when he noticed something odd. At least to him.

“I was giving them advice, pretty standard, and many of them were writing it down,” he says. “But there were a number of them that were rejecting it out of hand. I asked myself, Why would these people reject it? Suddenly, it occurred to me: If they’re doing this job for their own entertainment or pleasure, they wouldn’t want to do any of the things I’m saying. Building a healthy organization is simple but difficult, and leaders who have the wrong motive are just not that interested.”

The result of that unsettling moment is The Motive (Wiley, 2020), Lencioni’s 12th—and perhaps his most incisive—book. At a pivotal time for leadership in America, with critics across the political spectrum targeting CEOs as prime suspects for society’s ills, Lencioni enters the fray with a more elemental, more uncomfortable question: Why do you want to be a leader in the first place? Your answer, he says, has everything to do with your effectiveness as a CEO—and the success of whatever organization you’re running.


Pat will be hosting his first-ever virtual event—The Emerge Stronger Conference—on April 28th and April 30th from 9 AM-11AM PT. The line-up will include live commentary from Pat and a few must-see interviews including Gary Kelly from Southwest and Alan Mulally formerly of Ford and Boeing.

To Lencioni, who has counseled hundreds of CEOs and executive teams across virtually every industry over the past two decades, leaders operate on a spectrum from those who feel they have been put in charge as a reward for past performance and are seeking personal reward as a result, to those who feel the job as a near-crushing responsibility for the lives and performance of the people they are leading. The latter are willing to do the hard things they need to do to live up to that responsibility, even if it means suffering (his word) as a result.

That range in mindset—reward vs. responsibility—colors virtually every aspect of how those leaders do their jobs. How they manage or don’t manage their reports. How they run meetings. How they treat others. How they spend the minutes of their day. And, ultimately, whether or not they succeed at becoming the kind of person that other people want to follow.

“A person needs to check their motivation for becoming a leader before they can get into how to be a better leader,” he says. “Because if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, advice about how to become a better leader isn’t going to make any sense.” Chief Executive talked with Lencioni earlier this year about what really drives many CEOs—and what should. What follows was edited for length and clarity.

What do you see as the right motives to lead, and what are the wrong motives? And how do they play out in an organization? What happens with each?

The right motive to lead is because you’re accepting the responsibility of helping other people live a better life through their work, through what they’re doing for customers and for the organization. That’s a burden. It’s a sacrifice. The economics of leadership are not great. When I say economics, I mean the personal economics. Any great leader knows that they put far more into it for others than they get out of it for themselves. And they’re okay with that because that’s why they became a leader in the first place.

The wrong motive for leadership is to benefit themselves, for the admiration of others, for money or, more often than not, they want just to do what’s fun and enjoyable. They go into the job thinking, “What am I going to get out of this?” And then, when the difficult parts come up, the really sacrificial parts that only the leader can do, they say, “Why would I do that? That won’t benefit me.”

How do people who don’t have what you term responsibility-centric leadership end up in positions of leadership if it backfires so badly?

Oftentimes, they’re pursuing that big job. And they’re doing all the hard things because they know that’s what is going to get them the opportunity for the job. Then, when they get the big job, they say, “Oh, thank God, I’ve arrived. I’m reaping the rewards for a lifetime of hard work. I’m now the CEO.” Whereas, a responsibility-centered leader would say, “I’m doing it for the right reasons all along, and when I get the top job, now more than ever I have to be willing to take on the burden for the people I lead.”

Imagine a professional football player. The day they get drafted, they say, “Oh, I’m gonna sign a big contract. I’ve finally arrived. All the hard work in my life is finally paying off.” Versus somebody that says, “Now that I’ve been drafted, I have a huge responsibility to perform for this team and to work hard because now everything is on the line.” Is it a reward being promoted to this top job? Is it a responsibility that you’re willing to be burdened for?

Some people can be a leader with the right motive, but they can get complacent and slide. They can say, “You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m kinda tired.” I’ve seen this so many times among CEOs. They start avoiding the hard things they have to do for the organization. I’ve done it myself. I’ve had periods where I balked at the really hard things because they were unpleasant. I was thinking about myself, not the organization and the people I led.

How does this differ from “only the paranoid survive?” How does doing the right thing for others differ from being paranoid about getting things done and being overtaken?

I love that Andy Grove quote. The question is, should you be paranoid because you’re afraid of looking bad? Or should you be paranoid because you’re afraid of letting down the organization and the people who work there, and your investors and your customers? If your ego is big enough, there are ego-centered leaders out there who lead for the wrong reason, who still find a way to succeed because they’re so concerned about their reputation or their wealth that they’ll do these things purely out of pragmatism and self-interest. But that’s a rarity.

What are some of the characteristics of the reward-driven leader versus the characteristics of the responsibility-driven leader? How would we know them apart in the wild?

There are certain things that reward-centered leaders don’t like to do and often delegate or abdicate even though they’re the only ones who can do them. That’s one way you can assess. A reward-centered leader is not always going to have the difficult conversations with people they need to, and if a leader won’t, nobody else will. I’ve seen so many leaders get to a point where they just will not confront people about behavioral things. They’ll say, “I don’t want to do that. That’s unpleasant. I’ll ask HR to do it.” And it’s like, “No, no, no. That’s your job.”

A lot of them don’t want to manage their direct reports anymore. I often hear, “I’ve been managing people my whole life. Now I’m just going to hire people that are adults and that don’t need management.” There’s no such thing. So they balk at managing their people. They say, “Well, fire them if they don’t do a good job. They shouldn’t need my  management.” What they’re really saying is, “Management is kinda tedious. I’ve done it my whole career. I’m tired of it.”

Another characteristic is they don’t run good meetings, and they try to avoid as many meetings as they can. They’ll say, “I’ve been going to meetings my whole life. I’ve never had a choice. Now, I’m going to cut the number of meetings I go to. The ones I have, I’m just there to get what I need out of it.” I fell like yelling, “No, no, no. Your job is to make meetings intense and focused and productive. If you don’t, nobody else will.”

So, you can tell if a person is reward-centered by the things they avoid doing. And responsibility-centered by leaning into the things that are unpleasant, but necessary.

In the book, you talk about changing the CEO title from chief executive officer to chief executing officer. What’s the difference between the two, and what’s the point of pointing out that difference?

One is a noun, and one is a verb. Being the CEO implies that you do things, and that you’re accepting the verbs that go with the job. You’re not just occupying the position, but you’re actually doing things.

Now, the different activities I describe in the book are not the full range of activities that the CEO has to do. They’re the most common things that I find CEOs don’t do if they have the wrong motive. They’re the five verbs, if you will, that they abdicate or delegate inappropriately. Having difficult conversations regularly with people in the organization is one. Running focused meetings. Managing your direct reports. Constantly reminding people of what matters. The fifth one is taking responsibility for building your team. It’s not HR’s job. You are the primary team-building officer. If the CEO isn’t driving the effort to build his or her team, it won’t happen.

What I say is, your job is a verb. If I ask you, “Do you love your wife?” And you say, “Yes.” My next question would be, “Do you take her on dates, show her affection, tell her you love her?” If you reply, “No. I don’t do any of those things, but I love her.” Well, you might feel like you love her, but you’re not actually demonstrating it through your actions. A person might say, “Well, I’m the CEO, and I like being the CEO.” That’s great, but you’re not doing the things that indicate you’re actually a responsible CEO.

For those of us who are nowhere near perfect in this, can you really change your motives?

Yes. You can change your motives. You can accidentally drift into reward-centered leadership because you get bored, complacent or tired. In which case, either fight that or you should get out of the job.

Switching your motive to the right one never happens accidentally. You have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to be burdened for the good of others even if it’s not exactly what I want to do?” I like to say that if you’re the CEO, you should have the hardest job in the company—by definition. A CEO should ask themselves, “Am I willing to do the hardest job here? Am I willing to do things that nobody else would want to, but that I have to because if I don’t, nobody else will?” It literally comes down to asking yourself every day as you go into the office, “Are you going there looking for enjoyment and pleasure, or are you going in there to—I’m going to use the word—suffer for others?” Not that it’s all unpleasant.

The point is, most people in society don’t become leaders to suffer. They become leaders to get. It’s something that our society has allowed to creep in, and I’m hoping that’s about to change.

Do you think that it has changed in society over the past, you know, 20-30 years?

Yes. I think that we live in a society that sees all forms of suffering as pointless. I think our society is pretty soft. If you look at the lives we lead, things are pretty good. And leaders in general say, “Hey, you should maximize what you get out of life and minimize cost.” There used to be a feeling in society that said you’re a parent, you’re a leader, you’re a soldier, and you do hard things, and that’s its own reward.

When I talk about suffering, I mean sitting down with somebody and having a really hard conversation with them about what they need to do to change and what’s best for the organization. I once worked with a CEO who, instead of telling a guy that he was replacing that it was time for him to go, he just hired somebody for his position and avoided meeting with him for more than a month simply because he just didn’t want to have to say, “We’re letting you go. Here’s what I saw.”

I think we want quick fixes, we want easy fixes. I’m 54 years old. I was born in 1965. I think I’ve had pretty much a front row seat to this whole idea of we want things easy and we don’t want to suffer or sacrifice for others.

Because here’s the thing: Only the CEO of a company can do the things a CEO can do. You can’t delegate them. You can delegate marketing and strategy and finance. Yet, so many CEOs are more comfortable in those areas because that’s where they’ve been trained, that’s what they enjoy. So, they deviate to those things, when in fact they need to be doing the things that only the CEO can do. And those things are, by definition, hard.

Leading an organization can be an extremely lonely job. And it requires a selfless leader to do that job well. There’s an element of selflessness that is true in any great leader. And yet, I don’t think selflessness is very valued in our society anymore.

What practical advice would you give to someone about changing their motives?

I would say this: If you think you might be leading for the wrong reasons, know that your people see it. And they are disappointed. It causes them difficultly in their day-to-day jobs. Have the courage to first acknowledge that you do get sidetracked by doing things for yourself rather than for the people you lead. Admit it to them and let them know that you are going to be changing, that you are going to be adopting a more appropriate motive.

When reward-centered leaders abdicate critical responsibilities, the people on their team read between the lines. When leaders go to meetings and check out of things that aren’t interesting to them, the message they’re sending is loud and clear: “I’m only interested if it serves me.” When they see one of their direct reports exhibiting behavior that is detrimental to the team and fail to have a difficult conversation, the team’s conclusion is, “She doesn’t want to do that because that would be uncomfortable. It would make our lives easier. But she isn’t going to go there.” The truth is, our people see when this happens and are often left to face the consequences of our inaction.

So, I think the first thing is, know that your people see it. Admit to yourself that you’re doing it. Acknowledge to them that you’re going to change. And watch how glad they will be when they start to see a change. I think there are a lot of people doing this, who are humble enough to admit it and change. It’s not that they’re doing it intentionally. Some of them just think, “Well, this is how I thought it was supposed to be.”

And yet you talk about the end of servant leadership. Why? Why don’t you like that term?

Calling something servant leadership implies that there’s a different kind. All leadership is servant leadership. That’s what it should mean to lead. I am at the service of the people I lead. The reason I don’t like it is because it implies that the other kind is acceptable. It’s like saying servant parenthood. Oh, so, that means selfish parenthood is an option. Or “I’m an other-centered spouse.” Oh, you mean a self-centered spouse is okay? In other words, saying “servant leadership” is redundant. If you’re not a servant leader, you’re not a leader at all.

The thing is, even the most well-intentioned leaders can slip into the wrong motive for leading. Any leader can become reward-centered at times in their career and believe it is about them more than the people they lead. The good news is, there’s hope for them if they can be honest and change their motive. Otherwise, perhaps they shouldn’t be leading.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.