CEO Coaching: The Perfect Leader

I’ve been attentively watching the reactions to Henry Kissinger’s death. Some mourn his loss as a brilliant force for the greater good, some believe his actions in Southeast Asia, for example, make him the devil incarnate. It’s hard to prove either is wrong.

People in big shoes must make big decisions. Decisions with consequences. Decisions that will benefit some (or avoid misfortune) and concurrently bring pain to others (in Kissinger’s case, death). Show me a leader loved by all, and with deep exploration you’ll find someone who’s adept at skirting tough decisions.

I don’t work with politicians or the military. I work with CEOs, so I’m not dealing with life and death (though for-profit enterprises such as insurance companies and healthcare certainly make life-and-death decisions). I do, however, help CEOs with decisions that some will applaud and others will disdain. It’s part of the job.

Utilitarianism (and recognition!) drove Kissinger. He’d argue that pragmatism was more important than idealism. Others, such as Cambodian farmers, had a much different perspective. The question, it seems, is “What are you trying to achieve?”

If you’ve never been a CEO, you might underestimate the number of competing interests one must manage. If a decision benefits everyone, you’re a hero. If it benefits one group over another, you’re both hero and dolt. And most decisions do benefit one group over another. Investor versus employee. Employee versus customer. Short-term investor versus long-term investor. High-performing employee versus average performer. High-quality candidate A versus high-quality candidate B. One faction of your board versus another. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year (if you last that long).

The only logical way to handle this conundrum is to do what Kissinger did: Explain your rationale. Be transparent with your values, and let the cards fall where they may. Doing this vocally and frequently allows others to understand and predict your behavior. You’ll still upset many, but many (certainly not all!) will support you for doing what you think is right. (Unless you’re in Congress. Then only do what keeps you in office.) If all your constituents had the same objectives, you might be a perfect leader (or at least considered good by all!). But they don’t. Get over it, do your best, and explain yourself.

If you focus on the long-term benefit to the organization, balance constituent groups’ needs as best you can, and communicate effectively, you’ll still need some luck to be successful, but you’ll have a fighting chance!

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