Our Extreme Views on CEOs are Senseless


There’s no shame in marveling at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Whether your reaction is to dream it’s you in their shoes or laugh out loud at the ludicrous lavishness, that’s entirely understandable.

I can even empathize with the jealousy that glimpses into the lives of the 1% often evoke in some. It’s not exactly the healthiest emotion, but it’s certainly not a crime to feel jealousy on occasion. I’ve been there myself; I guess we all have.

But what I cannot abide are the extremes. I’m talking about the way people either hoist successful CEOs and business leaders up on impossibly high pedestals – as if they’re idols to be worshipped – or denigrate them as being unjustly endowed with undeserved privilege.

And the problem with the dysfunctionally divisive society we live in is that the extremes have all but crowded out the middle, courtesy of an evolutionary process known as the spiral of silence. Let me explain how that works.

People are pack animals. By openly supporting the views of the perceived majority of your pack, you feel safety in numbers. That behavior is reinforced. Open dissension, on the other hand, is denounced, so most individuals clam up rather than risk being ostracized from the pack, which, back in caveman days meant almost certain death.

The spiral of silence is how cultural norms occur. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It actually serves as a sort of stabilizing factor. While unique individuals who break the status quo are responsible for the breakthroughs that advance civilization, if that happened all the time, chaos would rule and civilization would ultimately break down.

You want organizations, companies, nations, and societies to move forward and grow, but you want them to be somewhat stable, as well. There must be balance between those two opposing forces.

Meanwhile the virtual world – specifically social media and the blogosphere – favors conformity of thought around popular memes. That’s occurring more and more as content becomes primarily user-generated and the crowd favors popular or clickable content. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the memes the crowd favors are fact or fiction.

Now let’s go back to those extreme views on CEOs. On the one hand you have the pedestal people – maybe we should call them sheeple – who dote on every personal productivity hack, habit, characteristic, or behavioral attribute any content-generator posts, blogs or tweets about. Thus the genesis of ridiculously popular and yet remarkably silly titles like What Billionaires Eat for Breakfast, Millennial CEOs’ Top 10 Productivity Hacks, Why Great Leaders Get Up Before Dawn or 99 Things the World’s Richest People All Have in Common.

Never mind that, of the hundreds of ridiculously successful executives and business leaders I’ve known over more than three decades as a management consultant and senior executive in the technology industry, there’s only one thing they all have in common: Absolutely nothing.

There’s one simple reason for that. Breaking the status quo, thinking and doing things differently, and carving their own path are what real entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders do. That's how they became successful in the first place. They’re unique. They’re different.

Like genetic mutations in the business genome, they rose to the top of their profession by doing things their own way. By following the beat of a drum only they can hear. And they know the golden rule of business, that nobody ever made it big by doing what everyone else is doing.

So all the pedestal sheeple have it wrong. Following leaders is never the way to become one yourself. Period.

On the other extreme you have entitled victim sheeple who waste their lives whining that they weren’t given the opportunities others had. And since they expect everything to be handed to them, they assume that’s exactly how every CEO got to the top of the corporate ladder – by simply falling out of the sky into cushy corner office chairs.

Never mind that all those same CEOs, VCs and business owners I’ve known over the years worked their tails off every day of their lives to reach the pinnacle of the business world. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe half of them started with nothing, as I did. How did they make it big? Hard work, guts, risks, courage, experience, smart decisions and by holding themselves accountable.

Granted, they’re not perfect. They make plenty of mistakes. Some end up making big mistakes they later come to regret. But then, that’s par for the course because they’re everyday people, just like you and me. They may do things differently, but they’re still flesh and blood humans subject to the same flaws and issues we all face. If you met one on the street, you’d say he’s just like a regular guy. Because he is just a regular guy.

So all the entitled victim sheeple have it wrong, as well. The vast majority of successful businesspeople got there by virtue of merit and achievement, not by privilege.

I call this configuration of cultural norms dumbbell shaped, since it’s dominated by extreme, opposing viewpoints, neither of which makes a bit of sense. Does that sound at all like any other aspect of our society? Politics, maybe? Something to think about.