Do CEOs Really Have All the Power?

by  Jennifer V. Miller  |  Leadership Development

In a blog post titled “C is for Silly: The New C-Suite Titles” Forbes.com blogger Jenna Goudreau explores the proliferation of titles elevating people to “Chief” or “C-level” status. The central premise of her piece was to question the relevance of so-called “vanity” titles like Chief Internal Evangelist or Chief Listener. In Goudreau’s post, marketing and management expert Mark Stevens is quoted as saying of the titling game: “It’s a puppet show. These people have absolutely no power.” He goes on to say that “the only ‘C’s’ with ‘real’ power are the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer and, occasionally, Chief Operating Officer.”

While I agree that a fancy title doesn’t bestow any more power than say, an awesome designer business suit, I question the assertion that only a “chosen few” have power in an organization. Mr. Stevens’ quote points out a persistent problem of organizational life and one that drives me crazy:

Why do we continue to confer power and prestige at only the top of the organization?

Power is defined as “One possessing or exercising influence or authority.”  So, it’s true that people with “Chief” or “Executive” titles have a higher level of authority than others in their organizations. But there’s a second part to that definition of power— it’s influence. I see the ability to leverage one’s influence as every bit as important as using one’s authority to get things done. And that has nothing to do with a company title.

Here’s a story to illustrate the point:

Years ago, I worked for a large company as a corporate trainer. In the evenings after most of the employees had gone home, I would often stay late to arrange the training room for the next morning’s training class. Over the course of several months, I got to know one of the company custodians, “George.” He would come in and visit with me as part of his rounds of cleaning the facility. We had a cordial relationship and he confided in me that not many people paid him much attention and he appreciated our conversations. It was only years later that I learned that George was related to “Bill,” our company’s CEO. I also learned that on occasion, George visited CEO Bill to report anything he observed that he thought the CEO should know and that Bill always listened and often took action.

Many people would say that a company custodian doesn’t have the same “power” as a company CEO. If they define power only by a title and authority, they would be right. If they would look past the titles and into the true meaning of power, they would see influence. And they would see people like George the custodian; people who understand that their title doesn’t define them.  Their ability to make a difference through influence does.

Food for thought:

  • Why does the perception that “only people with ‘C’ titles have power” persist?
  • Have you seen effective ways to diminish this perception in your organization? What’s being done?


Photo credit: istockphoto.com

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Articles By jennifer-miller
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jon Mertz  |  26 Jan 2012  |  Reply


Good thoughts in this post. If trust and power are related (and, I believe they are), then CEOs may not have the power. According to the latest Trust Barometer, CEO trust took a dive. Power is based on mutual respect and trust, and focus needs to return to these principles.



Jennifer V. Miller  |  26 Jan 2012  |  Reply


I agree that trust and power (or, some prefer the word “influence”) are related. Time and time again, people equate a powerful title with a powerful person. While this may be true– as you point out, when the titled person has earned the trust and respect of his or her community, it is by no means an assured state.

Casey Domnick  |  26 Jan 2012  |  Reply

This was a great blog to get people’s brains start thinking about power. Growing up and seeing how avenues like television and the media portray companies, it has always appeared to me that whoever was on top and in charge, held all of the power. Over the past few years having been involved with a number of different organizations and in different circles with people, I have found that it is not always the “Chief” or “C” that has power. Sometimes these people just surround themselves with great people who put them in power and they are really the ones who put the ideas in that chiefs head to accomplish something. They also may be the ones that can influence not only the chief but those that work for that company to do things. They I believe have the true power. To me it really depends on the rhetoric that is used. David Zarefsky came up with 3 points that he said were the responsibilities of rhetoric and they were: It permits reasoning together about matters that are not certain but about which decisions nevertheless are required, it binds individuals into communities and publics by establishing common bonds among people, and it inspires people to work toward goals by presenting visions of what might be. So if a person in power can use all of these things correctly and follow the responsibilities of rhetoric, then yes they do have the power. However, it may just be people who surround that individual that has the real power.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  27 Jan 2012  |  Reply


Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on what makes a person powerful.Your observation about how the media portrays people with powerful titles is very astute; those images are pervasive and certainly influence how we think the work world “should” be.

Within the Lead Change community many of us see a different “should be” for the use of leadership power. I’m grateful for people like you who help us think about power and leadership in a different way.

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