• Are Great CEOs Always Great Leaders?

    by  • February 19, 2012 • Human Resources, Leadership, Life, Strategy

    ISteve-Jobs-BW1n my mind, the best CEOs are usually the ones who are in a race to the future – they’re obsessed with defining the future because they can’t stomach the thought of reacting to a future created by their competitors. During his era, Steve Jobs was miles ahead of every other forward thinking CEO in that race. Somehow he was able to see the unseen, and marshal Apple’s resources to deliver the innovative products that fulfilled his view of what lied ahead. In the process, Apple became the most valuable corporation on the face of the earth.  That established Steve Jobs as the greatest CEO of our time. But was he the greatest leader of our time? Apple shareholders would surely say yes. Former subordinates, who suffered under his autocratic and abrasive style, might differ.

    Theoretically, the principles and personal characteristics that constitute great leadership should mirror those of greats CEOs – but not always. Here’s why:

    1. By definition, the person who fails to deliver quantitative business results for the company he
      leads is not a great CEO
      (of that company). That does not preclude the individual from being a great leader and a great CEO somewhere else. Reportedly, John Scully was the top of his class during his Pepsi years. Then he moved to Apple and failed miserably. Same leader, different result.
    2. Companies, markets, and the categories in which they compete can be exceedingly dissimilar. Fundamentally, the leadership style or the skillset required of a CEO in one environment may be the kiss of death in another. Is a “turnaround” artist right for a profitable, steady bureaucracy? Can a good “start-up” CEO guide a mature organization? Are shareholders looking for a builder or a banker?
    3. CEOs can exhibit some odd leadership characteristics and still get the job done. One has to wonder
      if Apple would have been as successful had Steve Jobs not been ruthless, impatient, emotional, stubborn, intense, and controlling.

    On point number 3, I’m the first to admit that if I could go back, I would have done a few things differently during my years in the corner office.  For starters, I would have injected more fun into a culture that was intensely competitive, but unnecessarily serious. Secondly, I treated everyone the same; at the time I justified my behavior as fair and equitable leadership. It was also “easy” leadership because I led without much regard to filtering the intensity of my personality. On reflection, I should have paid attention to the unique personalities of my management team and made some adaptations that would have allowed their business lives to be even more fulfilling.

    In the final analysis, would these improvements in human resource strategy have made any difference to the company’s performance? The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “no”. On the other hand, these adaptations would not have hindered the result. The most important question a CEO must answer is still, “what should we do?” Once he or she has taken care of that, the next question is “how should we do it?” This is the question that affords the opportunity for a leader to provide satisfaction to his or her followers during the long journey to a purposeful destination.

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    Formerlife: Jacobs Suchard CEO (Kraft, Nabob), Strategy Consultant. Afterlife: Palgrave Macmillan Author, Historical Novelist, Business Journalist

    7 Responses to Are Great CEOs Always Great Leaders?

    1. Diane
      February 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      Have you ever talked to john sculley. Do you know anything about his tenure at apple because if you did you would relalize your article is not correct

    2. John
      February 20, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      I have not spoken to John Sculley. I’ve made two statements about him in this blog – firstly that he was viewed as top performer at Pepsi. Sculley was credited with introducing the successful Pepsi Challenge marketing campaign. Secondly, I said that he failed miserably at Apple. He was forced out in the face of eroding margins, sales and stock market value. What is it that you are disputing?

    3. March 4, 2012 at 5:31 am

      John, I think there’s a lot of understanding to be had in the issue of leadership in the right place at the right time. History is full of examples – Churchill was a great leader during WWII and not at all when leading post-war UK. In a similar vein, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how Margaret Thatcher was a great leader despite that many despised her. She was the leader Britain needed at that time and she achieved some truly remarkable feats including being a woman PM. She had one had one significant leadership flaw – her rigidly autocratic ways meant that her judgment in several areas was self-destructive. In the end it was her cabinet that deposed her, not the voters.

      There are plenty of similar examples in business. What’s the learning for the CEO? I think it is that a single leadership capability or style has it’s limitations for the organization because the rate of change keeps growing. There are many leadership styles, not just one. Hence, CEO’s need to think more about situational leadership styles. They can’t be a chameleon, but should have the ability to learn and leverage more than one leadership approach.

      Make sense?

      • March 11, 2012 at 3:09 am

        Alan, je pense que votre analyse est juste. En Français, nous disons que ce sont “les évènements qui font les grands hommes” et non l’inverse. Cela demande aux hommes, en général, et aux leaders, plus spécifiquement, de faire preuve de qualités comme l’adaptabilité, la souplesse, la confiance, la curiosité et l’ouverture..etc. Notons aussi la qualité de la communication pour enrichir sa palette comportementale. Toutes ces habilités peuvent être de l’ordre de l’inné ( et là, nous avons un” grand leader” et c’est extrêmement rare. Je n’ai pas encore entendu parlé d’un individu présentant toutes ces caractéristiques) mais surtout et heureusement, il est possible de les acquérir. Mais encore, faut-il être capable de se remettre en question tout en faisant preuve d’humilité. Il me semble qu’on ne naît pas “great leader” mais qu’on le devient.

      • March 11, 2012 at 4:47 am

        Alan, I think that your analysis is right. In France, we say that the great events which make the great people and not the other way around. To succeed in a “special situation” people, generally, and leader, more specifically, need to show qualities and skills as intelligence, adaptability, flexibility, trust, curiosity and opening ….to broaden his behavioral pallet. All these abilities can be innate. There, we have a ” Natural Great Leader ” and it is extremely rare. I am not aware of any individual who presents and combines naturally all these characteristics. But especially and fortunately, it is possible to acquire, to learn them. But still, it is necessary to be able to challenge and “re-invent” yourself with humility.

        • John
          March 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm

          Isn’t it interesting, Soizic, that we tend to look for similarities in great leaders – that common thread. We should look at their differences and the unique traits that made them great within their distinctive environments. Thanks for your comments.

    4. John
      March 4, 2012 at 10:52 am

      Alan, you’ve nailed it. As I was reading your comments, I couldn’t help thinking how limiting wordcount is for bloggers. This is especially the case when it comes to the topic of leadership. Probably time for someone to articulate the “types” of leaders and the situations that best match their style/skills. How ’bout I leave that to you? Always enjoy your POV.