Brandt On Leadership -- Do You Suffer From CEO-itis?

How to diagnose a company-killing disease.

One of the pleasures of being a CEO or other top dog is the illusion, reinforced daily, that you are Superman and can, in fact, do no wrong. Your secretary organizes your desk, your VPs organize your meetings, and your minions cower before you like, well, minions. As Mel Brooks said during a peasant-shoot in History of the World: Part I, "It's good to be the King." The problem with being King or, even better, CEO, is that you may forget that the Superman thing is only an illusion. If that happens, you may come down with a severe case of CEO-itis -- a syndrome in which the CEO, blinded by his own wonderfulness, begins to lose touch with the reality that the organization really does need other managers and employees to function. Symptoms to watch for include: Severe Inflammation of the CEO Priority Gland: Believe it or not, your employees have full-time jobs to do. In fact, most of them have more than 50 or 60 hours' worth of tasks to perform each week. Within that time, they have to prioritize which tasks to do, how much effort to devote to each, and -- most importantly -- which tasks to put off until next week or next month or never. Yet many a CEO makes a habit of selecting one task of importance to him -- without asking his employees whether the task really is a problem -- and then tying up an entire team with:

  • A detailed briefing of the CEO on the topic -- for example, the Internal Division Inter-Office Tabulation Issue Crisis (IDIOTIC) -- about which he likely knows nothing;
  • A lengthy meeting or series of meetings to get at the root of the IDIOTIC problem;
  • A follow-up white paper on proposed solutions to the IDIOTIC problem;
  • A congratulatory session in which the CEO, while offering flowery praise to the IDIOTIC team, highlights his own perspicacity on bringing this insoluble problem to a conclusion. Meanwhile, the team itself wonders how quickly they might have solved a real issue if they had been able to spend the same 400-man hours on it, instead of on the IDIOTIC problem.
A CEO needs to remember that while his time is elastic -- he can spend or withhold it as he chooses within the organization -- the days of his workers are much more constrained by the tasks at hand. Make sure you don't waste their time on IDIOTIC projects. Cramping in the CEO Cranial Self-Perception Lobe: More than one CEO has said, after meeting with a key customer that none of his reps could even hope to get: That wasn't so hard. What kind of slackers do I have working for me? What these CEOs forget is that the power of their position -- not the potency of their charms -- is what makes these "impossible" meetings happen. Used wisely, this power can drive sales and build relationships that no other title can. Misunderstood, it leads a CEO to believe that he is the only competent person within the organization. Fortunately, he soon will be -- after all the smart employees get their fill of an egotistic CEO and leave. Hemorrhagic CEO Wisdom Dissemination: Worst of all is the CEO who, seeing little or no disagreement in most meetings, assumes that he must be as smart as he thinks he is. This CEO soon starts to work on organizational "culture" by trying to instill his "wisdom" -- in the form of rambling dissertations, blowhard memos and press release propaganda -- into the poor, unenlightened laggards who populate his factories and offices. Unfortunately for the CEO, a wider dissemination of bad ideas usually leads not to improved culture or enthusiastic employees, but to apathy and ridicule -- unless, of course, the ideas are so bad that they lead to revolution among employees, customers, and shareholders. At which point, as Mel Brooks might say, "It's not so good to be the King." John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.
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