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Qualities of a CEO


When you think of a CEO, what personal qualities come to mind?

On the positive side, CEOs are typically smart, energetic, focused, driven, and hardworking. But so are a lot of people who don't rise to power. We know those qualities alone won't get you to the very top, at least for 98% of the people with talent and drive.

As a  typical CEO, you might be drawn to high risks. You might possess a good dollop of narcissism, and be fairly high up on the sociopath scale. Greed helps too. And I would imagine that a flexible view of ethics comes in handy. In other words, mental illness is the active ingredient that distinguishes the merely capable from the highly successful. The more mental illness the better, as long as it is the kind that is compatible with capitalism.

Suppose you put the following proposition to two talented young people: You can be a CEO someday, but the price is that you will have two failed marriages and you will barely know your own kids. You will fire dozens or even hundreds of people over your lifetime. Your success will come at the direct expense of others. And your pay will have more to do with your weasel skills at manipulating the board of directors than the long term health of the company. You will move several times, to the distress of your family and friends. On the plus side, you will be rich and respected.

What kind of young person takes that deal? Is it the person with good mental health who wants a life of balance and meaning, or is it the risk-taking, narcissistic sociopath?

We all want the good parts of being a CEO, especially the money and respect, but we could do without the mental illness. Unfortunately, if you want the top job, you're competing against risk-taking, narcissistic sociopaths who are just as smart and hardworking as you are. Some of them will self-destruct, but like the zombie apocalypse there will always be another coming at you. In the long run, the crazies always run the show.

I'm the CEO of my own company now (the Dilbert business), and that required me to work a ten year stretch, for about twelve hours a day, without a day off. Does that sound like good mental health to you? And had I stayed in the corporate world, I would have employed all of my mental dysfunctions toward clawing my way into the executive suite. I'm not too proud to admit I probably have just the right mixture of mental problems to pull that off:

Risk taking? (Check!)

Narcissism (I have the perfect amount!)

Sociopath (I call it compartmentalizing!)

Flexible moral compass (Yay for capitalism!)

OCD (It will look like hard work to you!)

I'll concede that many CEOs are nice people with perfectly acceptable mental health. But I know most of you are reading this post and nodding your heads when I say your chances of becoming a CEO are better if you have some mental abnormalities to complement your natural talent.

So, given this context of mental abnormalities in CEOs, what is the biggest question in the news this month? Answer: "How can we get more women into leadership positions?"

The lack of female CEOs has to do with a number of factors including sex discrimination, social conditioning, and the glass ceiling. But I would think some of it has to do with the fact that more men than women have mental health problems of the specific sort that are compatible with capitalism.

I'm enjoying Sheryl Sandberg's take on why there aren't more women in leadership jobs. She raises lots of good points. But I don't think we can ignore the mental health angle.

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Mar 20, 2013
Now it all falls into place. This is a perfect description of every high manager I worked for (in the UK).
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Mar 20, 2013

The strategy works because having all the skills of todays perfect CEO and the capacity to leverage them at all times is not something that can be reasonably expected of a normal human being without giving up something else. And whatever it is you give up to compensate for your extreme dedication to being CEO will eventually alienate your employees and kill the longterm success of your business.
Also, if you consider people with complementary skills as "competition", you've already lost your grip on reality : P
Mar 20, 2013
This is definitely one of the better commentaries posted recently.

When I began working in the 80's, I noticed that the people getting promoted seemed to share a unique behavior- they would publicly yell at others on their projects (in meetings, in the hall, etc.) What set them apart from a typical angry boss was that they would be yelling at coworkers for things that weren't the coworkers' fault or responsibility.

My theory was that the People-In-Power noticed this and thought, “That guy’s truly a nut, but he is not afraid to let loose on anybody who he thinks is tangentially associated to slowing down the project. I wish I had his cojones. Hey- why don’t I promote him so he can keep doing these crazy rants, only on a larger scale? That way I will look like the voice of reason in comparison.”

Moral: Unjustified bullying performed in the name of Project Efficiency gains you the respect and admiration of project leaders.
Mar 20, 2013

Again, you're thinking like a normal person and not like a CEO. Imagine for a moment that Im a CEO. Im on the top of the heap, want to stay that way and, therefore, don't want to create more competition for myself. And I want to increase the size of my paycheck. And Im willing to put in all of my time to do it. And I consider worrying over little things like mental health to be something only sissy, non-CEO types do.

Now. Tell me how your strategy helps me. Not how it helps my company or my workers, how it helps me.

Mar 20, 2013
You say women don't have these "mental health problems", but it's not a problem. Mental health for men is different than mental health for women. Men have to attract a mate by being dominant. Women can't. The CEO personality is attractive to women and a good mating strategy. That's why more men than women are CEOs.
Mar 20, 2013

Its definitely a very tempting thought to assume that a management team (or any team for that matter) can be completely self-sufficient once the right people are put in place.
Truth is though, that there needs to be someone with the overview to pull it all together.

Although, you're right that the conventional way of understanding management is one of assuming that the manager does all the important stuff and if he doesn't, he's a throwaway.

It is, of course, the CEO that must take responsibility for the team and ultimately call the shots.
But its crazy to assume that there exists a person who can handle all of the tasks at once without being superhuman.
Maybe it was possible several decades ago. Today, those that try develop mental health problems.
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Mar 20, 2013
I think the evolutionary take on the gender difference is not to be underestimated either.

Men are biologically replaceable. If a community of 20 humans, 10 men, 10 women try to survive, it would be a disaster if 8 women died. It would not be a disaster if 8 men died, as only 2 men could reproduce just as much as 10 could given the same amount of women.

Given that men are more replaceable, they are naturally and culturally positioned to do the dangerous tasks of the community, whether it is hunting, combat or other dangerous jobs. Those jobs tend to lead to either severe losses or large rewards, there is little middle ground.

Women, being biologically more valuable, have been sheltered from both the big highs and the big lows, positioned in the safe and steady middle.

Hence, risk taking is biologically and culturally a typical man thing to do. You could argue my examples are primitive and simplistic, but the pattern stands today. In the lowest and highest places of society you will find mostly men, and few women. Most women are in the safe and balanced middle.

In our modern society, many men now also are in the safe middle. I believe this to be an effect of men no longer being allowed to be men. Just like women having the dilemma between career and care, men now also have the dilemma of being the risk taker or the feminized metro man, with society expecting both qualities.
Mar 20, 2013
There's a book, "A First Rate Madness" that correlates mental illness with leadership by looking at several strong leaders through history: Abraham Lincoln, Hitler, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr.

I agree with the premise Scott has laid out. Mental illness of the narcisism and sociopath variety are certainly one path to the top. And yes @sortofva, I think we are talking about CEOs of the largest corporations. The smaller the company, the harder it would be to rise based on anything but performance/results.
Mar 20, 2013

You're thinking like a normal person instead of a CEO. Remember, a CEO is rewarded more for making himself appear indispensable than for making his company run well. The strategy you describe is geared towards making the company run itself and quite possibly setting someone else up to be CEO. In other words, towards putting himself out of a job.
Mar 20, 2013

[Okay, so I understand where you were going with this, but I got stuck on your vision of a CEO and couldn't get past it....That is a rounding error for the total CEOs out there. I should know - I am one. ...I work as hard as my hardest working employee (of which I have 15) ]

Ive said it before and will say it again; one can ruin a good comment or post with too many dumbass qualifiers. Im sure Scotts point was directed at the CEOs of large companies.
Mar 20, 2013
@Phantom II

You expect too much from people. Your logic is similar to saying that if you beleive taxes should go up then you should deliberately pay more taxes than you owe. Thats not how it works. While the system is what it is its quite reasonable to try and get what you can from it while acknowledging its faults and trying to correct them.
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Mar 20, 2013
"Suppose you put the following proposition to two talented..."
I don't think Steve Jobs (or Bill Gates) saw it that way. They were fanatics and used every means at their disposal to achieve their goal, like absolute perfection (Steve) or the software factory (Bill). Getting on top of their respective companies was the means, not the end.

Getting rich was not the issue either and families were irrelevant as well.

It's like child molesters. The mediocre ones soap boys in the shower (sandusky), the brilliant and successful ones form a school (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/abuse-scandal-widens-board-members-of-top-german-school-resign-a-686190.html) or even a whole settlement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonia_Dignidad).

So I'd say single-mindedness and ruthlessness are the qualities you look for. If you can figure out the guys /real/ motives and they coincide with the goals of your company, yeah, you can try to ride that tiger. But prepare to be eaten if you and he disagree on the direction of the sprint.
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Mar 20, 2013
Okay, so I understand where you were going with this, but I got stuck on your vision of a CEO and couldn't get past it.

The number of CEOs that meet your definition are slim. What, 2000? 5000? Let's say the kind of highly compensated, cut throat CEOs you describe are the CEOs of the top 10,000 companies in the world.

That is a rounding error for the total CEOs out there. I should know - I am one.

I am risk friendly, a bit OCD, but I work as hard as my hardest working employee (of which I have 15) and I am in the exact middle for compensation. Granted, I am also the single largest shareholder by a few shares over my partners, so any windfall I expect to receive will come later, but I don't think I have any of the mental illness you posit is required.

I just wanted to register my objection to your stereotype, in much the same way as I hate it when people use "corporation" to describe all of them and not just Exxon, etc. I got one of those, too.

When faced with a contradiction, make a distinction. If you mean "the CEOs of the top firms in the world" I can get behind that, but what you've done is the equivalent as if I had grouped Robert Crumb and Charles Shultz together under "all cartoonists".
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Mar 20, 2013
Scott, the reason you arrive at that conclusion is because you're assuming that a CEO can or should manage everything him/her-self. No normal human being can handle the weight of all the complex responsibilities expected of CEOs today.

The trick is to surround yourself with a team of competent people who complement you and eachother.
Then, this becomes a large part of the CEOs job: to manage and lead those people.
For that, you need to know how to bring out the best in everybody, good social skills, and generally to not alienate everybody around you.
This way, there is no single point of failure, the pressure on the CEO is spread out across different people who each excel in a task a CEO would otherwise be expected to take care of.
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Mar 20, 2013
@Phantom II: TLDR (get your own blog already!)

@Scott: Nod nod nod nod!

I was in a meeting once where the person next to me was behaving very distinctively: wobbling on his chair, fumbling on his laptop, glancing through the room, and generally being distracted 90% of the time instead of particpiating in the meeting. A typical case of OCD. It turned out he was a manager somehwere between the middle and the top level of another branch of our company.

On topic:
As we all know women are the better persons who are morally superior to men, and so it is clear that they will never rise to power in our society.
Mar 20, 2013
Re Phantom II's elegant tirade: There are at least as many Caddy Conservatives out there. And they're more dangerous because they tend to hold more power (because they're more sociopathic?).

They champion "individualism" but stand first in line for government handouts in the form of pork-laden contracts, tax breaks (what's a 49% rate to someone with world-class accountants and a few congressmen on the payroll? The IRS will be lucky to get 5% out of them), exemption from laws, artificially imposed market advantages, etc. And after they've cleaned out the buffet, they denounce the poor SOBs looking for scraps under the table -- and the government for allowing scraps to not reach their own plates.

They champion "meritocracy," but you notice the most prominent tend to come from dynasties and even some of the (presumably) most intelligent display a hilarious lack of awareness or even comprehension about what it is to actually work, create and put one's self on the line. Those that do come up the hard way have a disturbing tendency to insist they succeeded with no help whatsoever from society and in fact want to kick over any ladders they used. If they truly believed what they said, they'd pack their children (and maybe themselves) off to third-world countries and failing economies where the government is genuinely out of the picture.

They champion "family values", an empty marketing term that implies moral and perhaps religious awareness, but in fact is merely a pretense for selective disapproval. They were great opponents of adultery until too many of their own were being caught at it; now they're tiptoeing towards accepting gay marriage because disowning so many relatives is a PR disaster.

They champion "patriotism," which has somehow mutated from "My country, right or wrong" to "My country only when it benefits me, and anything else is treason." They whine for "freedoms" that trump the rights and even the lives of fellow citizens.

As for ethics, CCs have two sets: unadulterated self-interest elevated to quasi-religious status for their own actions; the harshest possible parsing of the Bible for everybody else. Phantom II correctly mocks select LLs for failing to act in accordance with their avowed beliefs. But what about an entire political movement that loudly fetishizes the "creation of wealth" (actually the redistribution upward of wealth not through production or innovation, but financial manipulation)? What about the open contempt for working stiffs, and the idea that while CCs grow sleek and fat on handouts, everybody else would be better served by grinding poverty (resulting from CC incompetence) rather than "dependency"?

. . . On second thought, it's not really possible to nail a CC on ethics. Those are all admirable concepts in his bubble; a distorted Cliff Notes version of Ayn Rand. Ethics, morals and genuine patriotism are explicitly for other people. And he is utterly dependent on other people having those qualities to fight the wars, do the work, and maintain the society that props him up.
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Mar 20, 2013
The world if full of !$%*!$ people. Some are CEO's some aren't. But I have to tell you, there is one CEO of a company that is by far the most horrible person on earth. If it was leagal for me to kill him, I would. His Name is Scott Blum. He was the CEO of Pinnicle Micro and the Founder of Buy.com. He is by far, the !$%*!$%*! person on this planet. By far. If you think you know someone worse, you don't.
Mar 20, 2013
I am not sure I agree that risk-taking is one of the required qualities.

Entrepreneur CEOs are typically risk takers, but I don't know that risk-taking applies to the claw-your-way-to-the-top type CEO that you describe. Instead, I think it requires a rare combination of a big ego and the ability to kiss some butt when necessary.

Mar 19, 2013
It is a fine and obscure line between genius and madness.

In fact you could say that a genius is just a lunatic in the right place.
Mar 19, 2013
Now that women can be in combat, there should soon be binders full of women with mental health issues. :)
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