Chief Leadership Officer: Disrupting the CEO Status Quo

Chris is a twenty-something entrepreneur in the midst of her start-up. Designing her business cards, she proudly, yet innocently, appoints herself with the title Chief Executive Officer. Chris doesn’t realize it but she’s just placed her fledgling business at a long-term disadvantage.

What? Why shouldn’t she be a CEO?

Calling herself a CEO is the accepted norm. Unfortunately, her title is a strategic, operational, financial, and cultural derailing eventuality to the intended track of her purpose, vision and values.

Bill, in his late 50s, worked hard to be tapped as the CEO by the board. He works even harder as the CEO. Bill is frustrated with the work ethic and low levels of engagement within his management and employee ranks. Even more worrisome to him is the swelling ranks of millennial employees in his workforce who have an even more divergent perspective on work. The pressure he feels to meet the business objectives causes him to press on his team. He feels trapped by his position, power, and perks.

Chris and Bill are at two ends of the same CEO-led management system. They’re subject to the lingering effects of an obsolete, yet widely accepted manner for running organizations. The CEO user base is diverse, yet it can be compared to an almost 100% installed “operating” system matched with immeasurably supportive “hardware.”

"CEO" represents more than the top officer’s title. It is a way and manner of leading rising in the early 1950s at the height of the Industrial Era and, coincidentally, at the birth of the Digital Revolution. Today, the “CEO System” dominates the business psyche, manner, and method. Yet it dampens the purpose, possibilities, and profitability of new as well as established businesses. For all the innovation of the Digital Age, business management remains wired to the rusting framework of the Industrial Age.

The CEO System Exposed

Challenging the CEO System is business heresy. There are, however, many problems in the world of commerce and practical affairs. For example, Gallup reports that less than one-third of U.S. workers are engaged in their work. What a waste of talent! That’s not an employee problem; it is the symptom of a widespread systemic leadership problem.

How to quickly identify a CEO style company:

  • There is a person holding the title of CEO.
  • The CEO makes statements like, “People are our most valuable asset,” or “We need to get the right people on the bus.”
  • There is a human resources person or HR department.
  • The business has a “work-life balance” program.

Answering “Yes” to any of these statements indicates the likelihood of a CEO-run organization. Two insidious tenets of the CEO-System are these:

  1. People are ultimately assets—dehumanized chattel bought, sold, exchanged, and treated like any other unit of production.
  2. The CEO wants followers, not true leaders. Or more precisely, the CEO wants high performers who exceed financial and production quotas so they can be called “leaders” even if they demonstrate little of the character of a true leader.

Think. The term “human resources” speaks volumes. Regardless of how gussied up it is, the most glaring offense of the traditional CEO System is its dehumanizing effect on people at the sacrificial altar of shareholder value. Profit trumps people every time.

Almost every company today is a CEO-run business. Management or labor, we’re all human lemmings snared in an Orwellian reality. Prior to the Industrial Age, it wasn’t like this. Today, we find solace in making marginal patch jobs to a failing infrastructure. It is like drinking a diet beverage to be healthier while eating fried chicken, hush puppies, and fries with salt chased by apple cobbler a la mode. Who are we fooling about our healthier ways?

People as body, mind, and spirit-filled souls deserve better. As a society, we’re more capable than ever to disrupt and rebuild a solid infrastructure based on what’s right for people and good for business.

Enter the Chief Leadership Officer

On June 1, 2016, a leadership and business renaissance officially began with three words: Chief Leadership Officer. The unofficial start was in 1991 but that’s another story for another day.

A Chief Leadership Officer is a new category of leader designed to successfully pilot mutually motivated people through the shoals and to the shore of the Digital Age and beyond. The two primary responsibilities of a Chief Leadership Officer are:

  1. Position the organization to be a leader in its chosen field;
  2. Position the people within and outside the organization to be leaders in their lives and work.

This dual responsibility creates an “iron sharpening iron” dynamic that hones the business strategy and carves the corporate culture to a profitable result. In a CLO-led organization many of the disciplines and tools of business remain familiar, yet this is a new frontier of leadership. The emergence of the CLO is like comparing a smartphone to a flip phone (CEO). Much is familiar but it is an entirely different user experience.

The CLO Challenge

When intrepid Chris prints “Chief Leadership Officer” on her business card, she’s making a statement. She’s electing to participate in an emerging system and brand of business leadership that Bill may not be able to stomach. She’s taking a chance by stepping into the unknown as a practicing pioneer of what it means to be a CLO. Bill faces a choice: kick the can down the road to the next CEO or embrace this opportunity. Both are business builders who can develop best practices as and for CLOs and leave them like breadcrumbs for future generations.

Now it is your move.

Kevin W. McCarthy is America’s Chief Leadership Officer. He’s an evangelist for the high and noble calling and creativity for business, while also an ardent reformer for what ails it. His previous books, The On-Purpose Person and The On-Purpose Business Person cultivated the conversation today about purpose and the meaningful integration of life and work. Learn more about him here. Download opening chapters of his new book, Chief Leadership Officer, here or order the book here.


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