How Smart Do CEOs Have to Be?
*Dr Irving Buchan
There was once a prisoner who yearned to be free. One day the prophet Mohammed appeared to him, and
gave him a set of keys to his cell, saying â€œYour piety has been rewarded. Allah has set you free.â€ So the
prisoner took the set of five keys, mounted them on the wall, and prayed to them five times a day.
There was a time when years of experience and successful performance were all that it would take to
go all the way and stay there. But minimally now many have advanced degrees, even acquiring PhDs
like their European counterparts. Most troublesome of all they behave like academics, pontificating about
business metrics, dashboards and cultures. But the entire issue can be uncomplicated and its
basics restored simply by noting what choices effective CEOs make when both leadership and
knowledge work in tandem. In other words, when each reinforces and guides the other the result is
quickly recognized as smart leadership decisions.
Indeed, the literature even displays the essential patterns of such choices. They are three in number: the
directional/aspirational, the inclusive and the reverberating.
The aspirational decision signals clearly where we are going but not often enough why. When such
leadership decisions are intelligence-driven then the rationale of why we are going that way is
made equally clear. Professor CEO runs the directional seminar. Such executive knowledgesharing
serves to advance two other sub directions: to justify actions of acquisition, and to
Often the new direction is both acquisitional and aspirational in nature. What is chosen may be a
soft takeover, an alliance rather than a conquest. But often directional pursuits do not just add but
annex areas; they are territorial, serving to extend and expand the range of the leaderâ€™s domain and
signal the extent of his ambition, testosterone, and mission.
The pursuit of excellence is no less aggressively pursued. Frequently made into a companyâ€™s brand
(â€˜this is the way we do things around hereâ€™); it shares with the acquisitional the goal of getting
ahead and being first in class. Leadership intelligence thus always defines itself by what direction and performance standards it chooses and values. Savvy and smarts become CEO brand.
2. The Inclusive
Less aggressive and often both inward and outward facing, the inclusive does not seek to
conquer but to co-opt, not to take over but to enable. The goal is always to be totally
accommodating: to patch up territorial feuds and spiffs, to leave no one out and to implement
ultimately the harmony of alignment. Above all, its goal is to create a culture of consensuality
needed for the effective functioning of teams and networks.
3. The Reverberating
Applications are intended to be bequeathing; they start things off, get them going and then step back
to pursue a life of their own. Instead of take over, they turn over, they delegate not dictate. Thus, the
choices are always doubling: they link and are linking, connect and connecting, brokered and
brokering. They are permanently unfinished. They are always a mode of stretching and
searching, inevitably a prober of first and final causes, a unifier of innovation as the offspring of
the future. They come closest to embodying vision. Leadership intelligence thus always partners with
what defines not only its own brand of intelligence and leadership, but also that of the company. Although
the specific affiliations may vary extensively, it is clear that the threefold pattern supports the effective
exercise of leadership to the point where absent leadership falters. In short, CEOs contemplating
decisions have to ask of the options before them three questions: are they clearly directional and aspirational,
inclusive and reverberating? Above all, smart leadership seeks to clear and level the field by making
the following distinctions:
â€¢ Gifted athletes do not often make good coaches; the best violinist will not always be the best
conductor; the best teachers will not necessarily be the best head of the department. Different
skills are involved. The skill of performance is not the skill of leading performance.
â€¢ Natural leaders stand out. Employees listen and follow them, but need to look for the one who is
capable of learning leadership over time.
â€¢ Leaders are developing. They are always long term. They have to persuade us that they are
capable of going all the way, that they and we will last.
â€¢ Diversity rules. What may work in the West may not work in the East.
â€¢ Smart leaders do not keep making the same decision, tapping the same people or using the
same words. Hybrids should begin to talk â€˜hybrideseâ€™.
â€¢ Leaders should not be one-sided or onedimensional. They should be tolerant of
ambiguity and coexistence of opposites as normsâ€”they should regularly read the Wall
Street Journal and text messages.
â€¢ Change is one thing, progress is another. Not all change is progress; that requires conversion, the
test of time and the ethics of the common good.
â€¢ Evolution is slow, technology is fast. Evolution tries to catch up, technology leaves things behind.
Leaders are interveners; they are peacemakers between the slow and fast. In the process they
also convert change into progress.
Finally then, how intelligent do leaders have to be? We know that many are not geniuses, and they do not
have to be. Indeed, perversely being too bright may even be an impediment to decisiveness and invite
decision analysis-paralysis. And yet for all that we single out and admire those whose savvy sets them
apart, those who think and act in such a distinctive way that it becomes their leadership brand, and even
happily that of their company. Indeed, that latter legacy tends to be generated by CEOs who have
internalized their organizations to the point where we cannot tell where the one begins and the other leaves
*The writer Dr Irving Buchen holds degrees in English Language and Psychology (New York University) and a PhD in Business Communications (John Hopkins). He is an international academic and business consultant and can be reached at 8650 Kilkenny Court, Fort Meyers, Florida 33912 or firstname.lastname@example.org