CEO’s are supposed to be like conductors, impresarios, major league sport team coaches, or movie directors – you pick the analogy that works best for you. The bottom line is that they need to coordinate disparate and sometimes dysfunctional groups of people – including stars (who frequently have good-size egos all by themselves), connectors, and losers – into doing great things! And they cannot limit themselves to internal resources only. The good ones will do it with externalized communities of people that include employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and resellers. And the best ones will even integrate competitors into their cast of characters that they can influence to achieve their goals.
So what happens when a CEO has a big ego? The answer is simple – a CEO with a big ego cannot play that role!
CEO’s with big egos will inevitably clash and compete with other egos in their ecosystem – be they stars in research, marketing, engineering, or other successful CEO’s in their industry or region. Those people are their true competition. Big egos do not collaborate – they compete on the ego level. So what comes first in the case of a CEO with a big ego is not the company, the employees or the customers – it is their ego. What is important is how they will look in the eyes of constituents that they deem influential or important when it’s all said and done?
At the extreme, the only way for CEO’s with big egos to achieve their goals – come out ahead of other stars, or worse, eliminate the other stars while coming out ahead – is by weaving webs of deceit, building a protective cocoon around themselves, and by ensuring that there is a podium/pedestal for them to step on. They surround themselves and protect people who will foster their agenda blindly – in the process creating executive echo chambers and increasingly removing themselves from business realities.
Even though some are really good at hiding their true nature, there are so many tell-tale signs that can point to bad behavior and real bad news in the future. When a new CEO of a well known brand tries to inject himself in the brand by appearing in TV commercials – what do you really think the motivation is? Help change the appeal of the brand in the youth market? A subservient chicken or an office chimp seem to achieve that goal much better… And you know you’re in trouble when your CEO tries to limit access to certain people – like the board. Or when she starts bad-mouthing other CEO’s who happened to be ex-colleagues and who are now very successful and get a lot of credit for their achievements. And we can go on and on with early warning signs of leaders who can do more damage than good to their organization.
There are a lot of examples of companies with CEO’s with big egos that ended up in disasters, and many others where ego-less CEO’s are achieving beyond-great results. And as always, there are the exceptions – but we can not all aspire to be like Steve Jobs. But besides these extremes, and because of ego-centric leaders, there are too many companies who never achieve their true potential and too many reputations that get tarnished in the process for no good reason.