The Tale of the Horror-Show CEO

As the President and CEO of a successful company, the subject of leadership is never far from my mind. It’s a topic I’m passionate about and I’ve devoted a lifetime to exploring it.

Along the way, while navigating the ups and downs of my own leadership journey –a road with more than a few bumps I can assure you! – I’ve come across a huge range of stories from friends and colleagues that have stuck with me. Some good. And some very bad.

Today I want to dip into my bag of vicarious experience and focus on a cautionary tale that came to me via the nephew of a close friend.

This young man – let’s call him Bill – had recently been hired as a Junior Operations Executive for a mid-sized firm here in New York City. He was excited about the role and had been through a relatively gruelling series of interviews to get it. He was ready to hit the ground running.

Once in the door however, some serious problems started to make themselves apparent.

The IT department (on which the company depended for their core business) seemed to be run as an impenetrable local fiefdom – responsible to no-one, riven by infighting and consistently missing release dates.

The Sales department, to judge from the previous 6 month’s revenue figures, had obviously been on shore leave for quite some time.

The Marketing department had been effectively disbanded due to “poor performance” and was down to two disgruntled interns.

In Operations, Bill’s own department, things were no better. Procedures were poorly documented or entirely non-existent, meetings were long and pointless, morale consistently low. In short, the situation was a mess.

Try as he might, my young friend couldn’t put his finger on the underlying cause of the malaise. His co-workers seemed like friendly, sensible people on a one-to-one basis but the working environment increasingly resembled that of a circus.

Two months into the job, the scales finally fell from his eyes as he attended the company’s bi-annual All-Hands meeting.

The room was hot and stuffy, the atmosphere full of muttering, as a succession of department leads took their turn at the front of the room to drone through their presentations.

Finally, the CEO of the firm, a broodingly silent presence up to this point, took the stage.

His speech to rally the troops was short but to the point. I’ll quote it in its entirety:

“I don’t give a **** how you do it. Just go out there and win the quarter.”

And with that, the meeting was over.

In all my years of dealing with or hearing about CEOs, I’ve yet to hear a worse example of leadership. My relatives back in the old country would have summed it up as follows: Il pesce comincia a puzzare dalla testa – the fish rots from the head.

In my mind I’ve always thought of it as The Tale of the Horror-Show CEO.

Needless to say, my young friend didn’t stick around too long after that and I have to admit I took a certain satisfaction in seeing the numbers of the company in question fall off a cliff in the years that followed.

Over my career, I’ve seen poor teams saved by good leadership on several occasions but very, very rarely the opposite. Decay at the top of an organization will bring even the best of teams to their knees.

It’s a lesson I ponder often and a responsibility I take even more seriously as a result.

What’s the worst example of corporate leadership you’ve come across? Let’s stick to situations rather than names here! Let me know in the comments below.


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