Are Great CEOs Great Leaders?

In 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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