The Provenance of CEO Certainty can only be Mediocrity

Group Casual Meeting

Leadership is not just about task competence. If that were the case, every orchestra conductor would be a virtuoso on strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion. The leader is there because they multiply the value of individuals by making them into a team. Good judgment is needed when encouraging people ‘what’ to do not ‘how’ to do it.

Today’s post is by Chris Lewis, co-author, with Pippa Malmgrem, of The Leadership Lab (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

The obsession with the infallible (often male) leader is not a new one. From Jesus to Jobs and from Moses to Musk, we’ve been taught to focus on the leader as a hero. And this despite history, what’s so often prophesied to lead to the mountain top, ends in the abyss. And we’ve had a few of those anti-hero leaders in the last decade, but maybe the penny is finally dropping?

In business, we know that inclusivity and diversity promote success. This is not just a matter of social justice, it’s a matter of money. The research shows that leaders with connections to people of different demographic backgrounds and skill sets create higher enterprise values. But how do we build this into business leadership? Let’s start by focusing less on the ‘leader’ and more on the ‘ship’. You know – the folks in the galley rowing, those who spend a lot of their time doing stuff. Leadership is not just about doing, but let’s come back to that.

CEOs and other leaders are supposed to be trusted and followed. But, they’ve been consistently blindsided by events. Why? They are too busy dealing with a world that has changed beyond their recognition. They are too busy trying to do something. The CEO plays many roles: authoritarian, representative, arbiter, role model, visionary, and font of wisdom. These words have something in common. You can’t put them on a ‘to-do’ list because you have to ‘be’ them. That means you can never achieve them or tick them off a list. Maybe that’s the reason that not many CEOs have a ‘to-be’ list?

It’s one of the common mistakes made by leadership. It gets there (at least in part) by competence or domain skills. It gets there by doing things, but it stays there by being something. Take being trusted for instance. What makes you trust someone? Well, what makes you attribute any brand to anything? It’s this equation; Frequency x Duration = Retention. It’s the number of times and the consistency that a value is displayed. All this reflects judgment; something leaders need more of.

So, leadership is not just about task competence. If that were the case, every orchestra conductor would be a virtuoso on strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion. The leader is there because they multiply the value of individuals by making them into a team. Good judgment is needed when encouraging people ‘what’ to do, not ‘how’ to do it.

At the heart of it, leadership is about people, and that means it’s about managing diversity. Don’t worry; this is not a call for leaders to mount their ‘ethnic peace bicycles’ as Clarkson would put it. It’s about creating unity out of difference. It’s about creating a set of brackets with which can be voluntarily adopted by those within them. Think of the motto of the United States – E Pluribus Unum or “out of the many, one”. It’s perhaps the greatest leadership statement of all time. People rally to values, not just to vocations. Let’s call this parenthesis. Our leaders today believe in analysis. They need to be better at parenthesis.

Research suggests that leadership in the 21st century has become very short-term. Take the stock markets for instance. In Britain, quoted companies need to report every six months. In the US, it’s every three months. What does this say about investor trust? In a tertiary economy, with its emphasis on professional skills, it takes three months to recruit leadership and probably longer to bed it in. In just about every industry, job tenure is falling, so if the average job stay is four years, then that’s an average churn rate of 25%. It’s fast out there and getting faster. So what? If you move fast, you’re reliant on analysis: Where are we? What are the numbers? Where’s the competition? Analysis is the opposite of parenthesis.

Judgment then, is the balance of the parenthesis with analysis. You can’t be a leader on empathy, collaboration, and communication alone. It has to be balanced with one quality above all else – the courage to act. CEOs can’t afford to wait to until they’re right. CEOs are only ever right in retrospect. Leadership is therefore about coping with ambiguity. If you hear a CEO predicting an outcome, run away. Their job is to prepare, not to predict. The team has to be ready for any outcome. A CEO’s certainty is the provenance of mediocrity. From the banking collapse onwards into Brexit and Trump, can anyone, any more, anywhere, any longer be listening to the certainty of leadership?

The Leadership Lab

Chris Lewis is co-author, with Pippa Malmgrem,of The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership In The 21st Century (CLICK HERE to get your copy). Lewis, a former journalist, is founder of one of the largest creative agencies in the world, LEWIS. Founded in 1995, his practice now encompasses more than 25 offices and 500 staff. He is British, but splits his time between Britain and America. 

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