Many CEOs create an illusion of control, but heroic, charismatic leadership in the context of large public companies is mostly a myth.
Do these Messiahs actually do the job required of them--relieve beleaguered mere-mortal managers and steer the company toward greatness? Nine out of 10 times, they do nothing of the sort. What they do is convince people that they're in control.
Leadership As Theater
Heroic, charismatic leadership in the context of large public companies is mostly a myth. What makes it a myth isn't that such figures don't exist (there have been a handful, such as Welch himself, Jobs, and Bezos), but the idea that the phenomenon can be studied in general terms, codified, and turned into a teachable skill.
True leaders are born, not manufactured. And they're quite rare. What the leadership cottage industry can manufacture are false leaders: People who can act like leaders. That theater has two audiences: the media and Wall Street.
The psychological allure of "leadership" as a concept is almost entirely due to its profitability as a business-writing cottage industry, which in turn is based almost entirely on appealing to the vanities of wannabe-Messiahs. On the other side, there's an entire shadow world devoted to manufacturing perceptions of Messianic capabilities, by "proving" claims to charismatic leadership using hagiographic narratives.
But allure alone isn't enough. The role must have some real function after all. What might that function be?
The de facto job of a leader is to manage perceptions on Wall Street and thereby manage the stock price. Projecting an image of charismatic leadership is the easiest way to do that. Managers fight fires out of sight, creating a perception of corporate normalcy and control, and the Glorious Leader uses that blank canvas of apparent normalcy to spin tales that mesmerize Wall Street.
In general, the Glorious Leader does precisely nothing to actually relieve managers of the increasingly onerous burdens they're required to carry.
Unfortunately, through the '90s and '00s, the Cult of the Charismatic Leader has only grown, to the point where it's declaring managers and management entirely unnecessary. The ultimate scapegoating.
A Messy Death
Charismatic theater-leadership is about to die a messy death, like Qadaffi, because the sheer amount of chaos converging in a bottom-up torrent to the CEO's office will become unmanageable very soon. The theater will become increasingly hard to sustain.
Leaders fail when their managers fail to keep up with the fire-fighting. Once the fires become visible externally, the apparent normalcy necessary for the leader to manage perceptions is gone.
At this point, the leader is an impossible situation, but the theater must continue. And so we're treated to the grand finale of the tenure of a CEO: the Big Bold Move, the Bet The Company moment.
The Big Bold Move is usually a Big Dumb Move--deciding to go after large new markets, taking on bold new product initiatives costing hundreds of millions of dollars, making major acquisitions. It's a high-stakes game with a billion-dollar ante.
And usually these moves fail because charismatic leaders are forced to make them at terrible times, with bad data, when growth has stagnated or is plummeting, and there's a need for an 11th hour business model shift to replace hundreds of millions of dollars of collapsing revenue streams. A case of too much, too late.
The leaders who fail are sacked, land safely with golden parachutes, and proceed to loudly blame "culture" (read: "incompetent middle management") for the failure. Those leaders who succeed--with more managerial help and dumb luck than they'll admit--inspire more hagiographic narratives and leadership "theories."
What happens when the music stops?
Tune in for Part III, where we'll resurrect the much-maligned and consigned-to-obsolescence middle manager.
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