My company is struggling right now – and in my opinion, it’s because we lack good leadership. Our previous CEO was great; he just seemed to get it. Always knew what to do, when to do it, and how. He was also very focused on building a strong client base, and customer support. But then he retired, and things just haven’t been the same ever since. We struggle to make our numbers, and constantly seem to be putting out fires. I’ve even heard there may be layoffs! Can’t the board do something about this before everything goes to s***?!? – Name withheld
Absolutely – I’m all for it. I’m mean, who wouldn’t be in favor of better leadership?
I’m afraid that’s easier said than done, however.
Part of the problem is that “leadership” is such a tricky concept to define. It’s very, very difficult to say what, exactly, makes certain leaders so effective. As leadership guru Warren Bennis philosophizes in On Becoming a Leader (1989):
“[L]eadership is like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
Those who take a stab at defining it more precisely tend to encounter another problem. Anything they do come up with—for instance, that effective leaders offer a compelling vision, are charismatic communicators, and/or exercise considerable influence over their followers—is often as true for an epically great leader (ie. Rev. Martin Luther King) as it is for an absolutely terrible one (Hitler).
What we’re left with then is that good leaders are good because they’re…well, good. And bad leaders are just bad. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. Or, as management scholar and writer Phil Rosenzweig explains in The Halo Effect (2007):
“…we have no satisfactory theory of effective leadership that is independent of performance…”
I hear just a hint of this in what you say.
Your previous CEO seemed to just “get it,” you insist. Great – but what does that mean, exactly? Get it how? Because unless you can be more specific, that’s not much for your board to go on should they start looking for a new one.
More insightful is your observation that your former chief executive focused on building your organization’s client base, and customer service. At least that’s specific (although I’d be surprised if your current CEO doesn’t view these things as important too). But can you be sure this is what made him so effective? Or was it something else?
What you may be falling for here is the fallacy of the “single explanation.” As Dr. Rosenzweig explains in this text, this is to wrongly attribute success to a particular strategy, action, or behavior when in fact a multitude of factors may have contributed. There is also the mistake of “connecting the winning dots.” Just because a successful business (or leader) does certain things doesn’t necessarily mean that other, unsuccessful companies aren’t doing the same things too (or trying to). Nor will pursuing a successful strategy implemented by another business necessarily produce similar success for yours. This is the delusion of the “wrong end of the stick.”
So sure – a better leader. Easy to say. Not so easy to do.
If there’s any advice I might offer you, however, it’s this: Don’t expect, or even look to your board to identify the leader you hope for, or seem to need. Rarely are the best leaders assigned by fiat.
Instead, they tend to be chosen by the people they’re meant to serve.
MLK, Mandela, Ghandi – these great social and political leaders were ultimately selected by those who would eventually benefit from the movements they led. There’s no reason this wouldn’t hold true for a business as well.
Now, I know, I know – never in a million years is your company’s board going to let you and you coworkers replace your CEO with someone of your collective choosing. But it’s worth acknowledging that’s how leadership works, when it works best. Nor should it be overlooked that were your organization’s management willing to even entertain this possibility, your company probably wouldn’t be in the situation it finds itself in to begin with.
You see, effective managers realize that surest path to sustained organizational success is to listen to, support, and ultimately do what their employees tell them to do.
That may not sound like great leadership to you. But it might be just what your company needs.
 Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. 1989 (Basic Books Edition, published 2003), p xxvi.
 Rosenzweig, Phil. The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers. 2007 (The Free Press), p. 60.
 Ibid., multiple pages.
 “The one thing you think you know about managing is wrong”; posted Oct.16, 2020.