Dec 012014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Given all the articles, book, lectures and discussions about leadership, you might hope that CEOs – particularly young ones – might have some idea about what it means to be a leader and, more particularly, what it means for them to be a leader. Such hopes founder on the rocks of the legalistic – and often formalistic – rationalizing that often spews forth from CEO’s trying to assert their ‘authority’ over the team. There are a number of variations on this theme:

  • I am the leader because I am the founder
  • I am the leader because I own the most stock
  • I am the leader because the investors say I am
  • I am the leader because somebody has to manage the business

Whatever the variation, the core of the argument rests on a misunderstanding of that it means to be a leader.

Recently I worked with two different CEOs. I was building a sales organization for each. Both engagements went extremely well. Within six weeks, I had brought A-level sales people onto both teams. As the sales teams began to settle in, the difference between the experience and understanding of the two CEOs began to surface.

The first CEO had almost two decades of increasingly expansive experience. He knew that his authority arose from what he personally could accomplish – what he could deliver. He also understood that he should bear responsibility for his own failures to perform. As a result, the dynamic at hand-over – my fading away – was both professional and without incident.

As I reflected on why this went so easily, I realized that this person was:

  • confident of his own capabilities
  • in the habit of leading by example
  • knew that leadership comes from trust that is built up through cumulative experience
  • not threatened by the fact that, at the beginning of building the team, I knew his sales people better than he did

The second experience was somewhat different. In this case, the experience levels of the sales people were much more extensive than that of the CEO. He had never built a team or led one successfully. In the past, he had shown a tendency towards expediency – a willingness to have others pay for his inability to deliver. As a result, the dynamic at hand-over focused on legalistic interpretations of authority accompanied by a plea that I ‘not undercut’ his leadership.


In this case, it was clear that this person was:

  • not confident in his own abilities
  • in the habit of leading by dictate rather than example
  • thought of leadership as something that one put on – as a coat
  • was threatened by the relationships that had built up during the recruiting process

These two experiences got me to thinking about leadership – what makes for a leader and whether you can teach leadership. On the second question, I suspect that the ideas behind leadership might be teachable but leadership is not. For me, it is much like trying to teach someone how to be ‘human’. Those of you who have spent much time in the anti-humanist technology sector will understand what I am getting at. For people who see others as objects to best of ‘manage’, the concepts of ethical treatment or compassion may roll off the tongue but the behaviors seldom change.

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