Skip to main content
September 26, 2018

The modern CEO: No longer all-knowing, all-powerful giant

Way back in 1959, before I was born, an English writer called Alan Sillitoe penned a short story – The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Later it became a film classic. It’s a gritty story about a boy from a dismal home in a low-income area, who has bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime. The boy turns to the sport of long distance running as both an emotional and a physical escape from his situation.

That title came back to me as I read the most recent thinking from the organisational behaviour department at London Business School – a piece by Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of organisational behaviour entitled with no small irony 'Happy at the Top'.

The loneliness of command is well understood in almost every culture on the planet. History is packed with content on the solitary struggles of emperors, presidents, generals, religious and human rights leaders. Overcoming obstacles, being cast down, resurgence and subsequent acclamation. These tales fire our imagination and sometimes inspire our actions.

Jolly was writing of course about leaders in modern organisations and businesses. And in particular about the capability gap that emerges and grows when you achieve a senior position.

“When you were a junior it was simple,” says Jolly, “you were a great engineer, a brilliant marketer or finance person. Success came through hard work and you rapidly climbed the career ladder. Your human capital (knowledge and expertise) is what got you promoted.” Now? The skills that got you to the top are not the only skills you need to be successful. In fact, the skills that you knew and loved are becoming increasingly redundant.”

It is indeed easy to make the mistake of thinking you already have all the knowledge and expertise to succeed in the top role. The fact is, the more senior your role, the less it’s about what you know and the more it’s about how to get things done through other people.

We call this your social capital. And if you rise to seniority without understanding this, you may very well find yourself wondering how it’s suddenly all got so difficult.

Do you have the capabilities to handle new types of work? Are you able to manage people where you don’t understand what they’re doing? Are you able to accept that change often comes from within the organisation? Sometimes from the bottom not the top.

Do you know full well that the Milennials entering your organisation are much better educated and more qualified that you were at their age? In fact, with your current skill set, you might never get a job if you were starting out in your sector today. That’s lonely.

You may not even be sure what success means as a CEO. You have to figure out what your role is. The higher you are promoted, the more ambiguous your job becomes. This isn’t the 20th century where the ‘great man’ at the top of the company was seen as an all-knowing and all-powerful giant.

The role of a CEO is evolving rapidly.

“The widely accepted idea of ‘cascading information’ is completely wrong for business today,” argues Jolly.

The modern CEO does not have all the insights held in a jug of wisdom that she simply pours down the mountainside. The job is no longer to tell people what to do then administer the systems and processes to check they’re working. Even the title of the most widely revered business qualification is outdated – Masters in Business Administration.

So, can you as a leader create an environment where every single person in your company knows why they’re working for you, where we’re going, and how to bring things they’re good at to help achieve the stated ambitions? That’s what the best businesses today are doing.

Let’s explore how best to do this in the coming weeks.

Chris leads The Brand Inside’s African operations. [email protected]

Poll of the day