Maybe it was the stale pastry. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Whatever it was, though, when I heard my fellow board member say it, I felt like puking. “What we need,” he bloviated, “is a ‘world-class’ CEO.”
There it goes again, I thought, the myth of a new CEO as silver bullet. Too often we fall prey to simplistic, infantile thinking; we project all of wishes, dreams, and aspirations onto a single person or idea in the vain hope that they, finally, will solve our problems, calm our fears.
In businesses, I’ve seen boards fixate on the act of replacing the CEO. The problem with this is that, in a sense, we doom the incoming CEO to failure. No single person can fix everything.
Management is equally guilty. Sometimes a CEO, facing a monthly burn of a half a million dollars, will fixate on the one mega deal with the big Fortune 500 company (“and they’re thinking of investing as well!!”) as the solution to business model challenges. Magical thinking.
Even more troublesome, the myth often is built on an almost willful ignorance of the facts. If the CEO (or head of sales or head of marketing or CTO) really needs to be replaced—and, believe me, I know that that is often the case—then the troubles don’t end with that one person. If the CEO needs to be replaced, perhaps the whole team she built needs to be replaced as well. Or, even more insidious, perhaps the underlying business model is wrong.
Why do we do this? (And trust me, I’ve done this.) I don’t think it’s because we’re mentally lazy. I think we’re afraid to face the larger implications. When I was investor, it was often because I was afraid to admit I’d made a mistake in making the investment. Or we might be afraid to do the real work necessary to correct the underlying problem (like fire everyone, strip the business down to the barest minimum, and rebuild the business model—I once sat on a board where the CEO (the CEO!) drove just such a decision. It was scary and beautiful.). Or, even more frightening, to face the fact that the enemy, as Pogo said, is us; that the problem isn’t the CEO, or the head of sales, or even the business model but the board of directors.
Real leadership requires putting aside guilt and shame and facing fearsome facts. It would be lovely if a single magical bullet could kill the Werewolf. In business, indeed in life, there’s little room for magical thinking. As Fred Wilson’s former partner used to say: “Hope is not a strategy.”
And the myth of the silver bullet CEO is exactly that: hope as a strategy. In fact, it’s particularly deadly because it’s hope wrapped in the patina of lofty-sounding terms such as “world-class.”
There’s a place in our lives for magic and mythic heroes; just not in the board room.