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Has the CEO really changed or is it business as usual?

Is everything awesome for the CEOs at Davos? julochka, CC BY-NC

Are you a conscious leader? In recent years, the role and self-image of the CEO has apparently changed. The idea of conscious leadership arose out of the conscious capitalism movement and changes the game for those at the top of the corporation.

You’ll also find it in older buzz phrases such as “servant leadership” and “emotional intelligence”. Top-down, hierarchical, macho leadership gives way to a more responsive, humble, authentic and inclusive view of senior leaders. So how does that rhetoric stack up against reality?

Is it finally goodbye to traditional leadership? Oxford University professor Tim Morris has been researching the expectations of CEOs and it seems the emerging buzz word is “authentic”. With other terms such as “servant leadership” still in the mix, it offers intriguing prospects for the nature of chief executives in 2015 and beyond.

According to Morris’ research:

Chief executives nowadays feel that they have to be more approachable, engaged, and caring. Or, as one described it, the Chief Emotional Officer.

Peak performance

The views expressed in Morris’s survey suggest that at least some CEOs want to be more “authentic”, humble and to recognise that their colleagues are people of diverse experience; people from whom they should take guidance and direction.

Google’s Eric Schmidt. JD Lasica/, CC BY

Cybersecurity is one major concern of some of the corporate elite, and warnings were sounded about not being ready and prepared. Google’s Eric Schmidt held forth about the inevitable disappearance of the internet. Of course, many weighed in their ten euro cents (and declining) worth on the quantitative easing plan from the European Central Bank. It’s not wrong to assert your opinion, of course, it just doesn’t seem that our leaders have adjusted their style.

As an academic I must admit to being a bit bemused and worried. On the one hand, CEOs claim that the post-crisis era needs to be one of transparency, servant-leadership and evidence-based decision making. On the other, many of the same leaders have been happily throwing their top-table opinions around about how the world should be in 2015 and beyond. According to one respondent in the Oxford survey, being a balanced CEO requires:

An almost insane combination of extreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, combined with complete humility.

Frankly, public displays of humility seem to be in short supply. At the 2015 World Economic Forum at Davos, there was plenty of arrogance on view. Many senior leaders at the WEF annual meeting used the event to make statements which emphasised their authority, perhaps wallowing in an echo chamber that cheers their elevated status and rarely acknowledges the collected views of their colleagues.

An honourable mention, however, goes to Arne Sorenson, chief executive of Marriot Hotels, who told the BBC:

It’s possible to glorify the position of CEO … it’s important that they should not be the only one making the decisions. Nobody is that brilliant.

No I in team

Another recent survey, this time from Ireland, has suggested that innovation is going to be the core activity of leadership in the future. Now, successful innovation may well be a bit of intuition, but it is also rooted in evidence-based piloting, and in research, the considering of different viewpoints before arriving at final conclusions.

As a distant witness, I have seen a lot of opinionating, weighted by the position at the top of a hierarchy. I have seen more statements than questions. I have not seen the kind of “humble enquiry” which legendary organisation writer and researcher Edgar Schein suggests as a way to build trust and openness, both of which are prerequisites for dynamic innovation.

Edgar H. Schein outlines the leadership lessons in his book ‘Humble Inquiry’.

According to Professor Morris’s research, chief executives believe that they “have to be more approachable, engaged, and caring”. He also told the BBC that there wouldn’t be a return to the “old-style” chief executive; top-down, authoritative and hierarchical. Judging by what came out of Davos though, the old-style of advocating, and presenting-opinion-as-fact-because-I-am-the-big-cheese, and asserting leadership is still very much in evidence.

Where were all the team presentations at Davos? Where are the questions being asked to balance out all the answers being declared? And how might the dynamic change if communication was truly bottom-up; if CEOs positioned themselves as part of a wider group of individuals in their organisations and communities and not simply the opinionators and commanders into it? That would involve less asserting and advocating and more question-posing and inviting comment from stakeholders. More pull, less push. More vulnerability, less macho posturing.

Of course, CEOs may be exhibiting the more modern, benign behaviour in discussion and behind close doors. But under the public gaze it all seems like celebrity television and strutting. It’s about pronouncement rather than real dialogue. If they want us to take seriously claims of inclusivity and humility, then the new CEOs for 2015 and beyond will eventually need to walk their talk on the public stage.

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