Do you think you can lead?

Do you think you can lead?

You are intelligent, clear, brave and perceptive. You know your business or your specialisation well. You get along with people and think you are generally a good judge of them. You are confident, but well aware that if you are not learning every step of the way, you will soon fall behind others. You make mistakes and call them lessons.
You are potentially in line to become the next CEO of your organisation. You have not been a CEO before. Your business is gradually becoming international – not in a frantic rush but steadily. It needs to. Your competitors are already established in many countries. Your company has been mainly local and more recently, regional. Now it needs to develop internationally either by acquisition or by in-country growth. The Board thinks it has set the strategy by declaring this priority. Whoever becomes CEO will be there to prove them right.

What will be the critical requirements of the next CEO?

The CEO must have executive capabilities, of course, but they won’t tell us about the development potential of the candidates. Someone who does his or her job brilliantly may be limited to it; may even be successful largely because of the guidance of his or her existing boss. There won’t be a “boss” for the CEO, just a Board. A Board regards its main job as disciplining the CEO. Thus, it may be inclined to look for an ‘experienced’ CEO. If it does, it will run the risk of ‘Second Time Around’. Or Third, or Fourth. No guarantee of development, only of disruption.

[Beware Experience: “It lends precision to the craftsman’s tool, and confidence, but leaves a fool a fool.” CJL Bittleston]

Boards aren’t bad, they are just not bosses. Anyone used to the guiding hand of a boss is going to miss it once he or she becomes CEO. When they say it’s lonely at the top it is not because your subordinates can’t be friends but because of the absence of a boss. Indeed, your subordinates must be friends. To think otherwise in today’s world is to miss the point of what Covid taught us.

Authority’s diminished control

Emotional intelligence will be a requirement, too. In this era of Authority’s loss of much control, orders are less important than understanding. It is no longer a question of whether someone works from home or the office. It is whether they work at all. Passing the buck was easy enough at work. It is a lot easier at Zoom. A deluge of KPIs is no answer. Missed KPIs, like missed deadlines, can lead to dismissal, but when they do the battle is over anyway. The purpose of getting someone to work effectively is not to fire them but to make them bigger and more successful. When it fails to do so the organisation comes off worst, not the people involved.

The difference between those who can continuously develop and perform at the highest levels of a business and those who can’t is their capacity to succeed in unfamiliar, complex and altogether new situations. It’s a combination of Creativity, Emotional Intelligence, Perception, Curiosity and Luck.

What is Creativity?

Creativity is Conceptual and Critical Thinking. Put another way, “the ability to perceive relationships”. Without it nothing survives today, let alone succeeds. It is the foundation of the technological revolution – and of all the agri-industrial developments that have gone before. It is the basis of good communication, of positive friendships, of profitable thinking. It can also be described as “the art of the impossible”.

Think how the climate problem would have been dealt with so much faster and more efficiently if we had recognised the importance of electricity storage earlier. Our whole urban transport system would have been designed differently. We came to it too late and instead of developing usable underground sources of current we invented the trolly bus. But we had already invented the tram, so why a failure of such a simple connection? We were asking the wrong questions. The right ones would have all cities pollution-free by now.

How do you know if you possess Creativity and Conceptual Thinking?

We all think in our own Orbit. That was created by our genes, childhood, parenting, education and life experiences. It is a changing orbit, usually expanding when we are young, sometimes stagnating as we reach middle age, often contracting in old age. But not one of those progressions is predetermined. We have the ability to shape, expand, develop our Orbit by using our time imaginatively and energetically. Every step you take, every word you say, every thought that enters your head makes some impression on your Orbit. Sussing out how you treat your Orbit isn’t difficult, but it doesn’t come from answering the obvious questions. Our responses to those would be very biased. More subtle investigations are needed to get at the truth. And even then we cannot be 100% certain we have got it right. But we’ll have it more right than most people.

What used to be called management

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is Social Awareness and Interpersonal Skills. In the absence of Authority as it used to be, this is how to get people to do what you want them to, without whip or gun. It is rooted in modesty and care. It accepts that you have an influence on some people – indeed, on some aspects of perhaps most people you meet – but that the issue is them, not you.

How do you know if you are Emotionally Intelligent?

When someone brings you a personal problem do you give your opinion and move on? Or do you continue puzzling the conundrum, perhaps even until you sleep? Emotional Intelligence never lets go. It continues to pursue a better answer, if not for the immediate situation then because of the desire to continue learning against the next time some similar difficulty presents itself. You can claim Emotional Intelligence when you celebrate others successes and roll up your sleeves to help them when they fall. Emotional Intelligence is “caring beyond care”.

Managing yourself is critical, too

Perception and Curiosity are the Ability to Self-Evaluate and Adjust. You can’t have one without the other.

These are the armoury of leadership. Gird yourself with them. Absent, they leave you exposed and vulnerable. In abundance, they make your leadership a joy for you and, more importantly, for those you harbour. Once you have developed the habits of Perception and Curiosity they will never leave you. We all make extremely quick summaries of the person we are dealing with in order to equip ourselves with the tools to handle them. These will necessarily be the obvious, immediately available information. The underlying stresses can be hidden by those used to dealing with frequent and tough problems. Picking up these less obvious clues is how the best equipped to choose leaders succeed.

How do you know if you have Perception and Curiosity?

Do you yearn to know what is round the next corner? Enough to push your way past the crowd to find out? Enough to suffer discomfort during your exploration? Are you absolutely determined to discover? If yes to all these questions, you may be truly perceptive and curious.

Assuming you have a fair sprinkling of all the above, how do you translate them into an interview for the job of CEO? I’ll deal with that tricky part of the equation next time.