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The great CEO is actually a teacher

Dec 21, 2007 Business Daily, Leadership

“Think back for a moment to your school days. Remember the best teacher you ever had, the one who seemed to know everything about his or her field and had something all the other teachers lacked: the ability to boil down the complex ideas of a discipline – whether it was psychology, economics or chemistry – so that you really “got it”. Other teachers may have had a great depth of knowledge and fancy credentials, but they couldn’t make the lightbulb go on in your head.

…the best CEOs…are like the best teacher you ever had.”

Ram Charan, What The CEO Wants You To Know, 2001

Ram Charan has been observing and advising CEOs for decades. His assertion that the great CEO is in fact a teacher comes from years of working with the greats, including Jack Welch and Larry Bossidy.

A great CEO – one whose company makes money year after year after year – is able to take all the complexity and mystery out of business by focusing on the core fundamentals. And is able to make sure that everyone in the company (not just executives) is able to understand those fundamentals. A good CEO, like a good teacher, inspires people and connects them to their work.

Michael Porter, the renowned strategy professor and author who visited Kenya recently, agrees. He once said: “The best CEOs I know are teachers, and at the core of what they teach is strategy. They go out to employees, to suppliers, and to customers, and they repeat, “This is what we stand for; this is what we stand for.” So everyone understands it. This is what leaders do. In great companies, strategy becomes a cause.”

Many Kenyan CEOs would obviously disagree. Their very mien suggests that the last thing they compare themselves to is a teacher. Those ragged, poorly paid fellows in those crumbling schools? No, no. Me, with my vast office, my army of assistants, my air-conditioned limo? Compare me to a rock star or a top sportsman – that would be more appropriate. Teachers are failures.

It is a terrible shame that that attitude prevails. Charan and Porter are right: a CEO’s key job is to understand and to explain. A leader who fails to do that isn’t leading at all. But understand and explain what? The basic building blocks of the business: what its customers really want from it; how it makes money; what it is the best at doing; how to grow it profitably.

A CEO who has those fundamentals always at her fingertips will be competent. If she can also depict those fundamentals to everyone in the company, she will be a star. The leader is the guardian of the core. In that core is what makes the company competitive, and what drives its success. The CEO’s ‘show-and-tell’ act is to demystify the core and reveal it to the world.

By this reckoning, the last thing a leader should be is a star celebrity. Leadership in the modern era is about stewardship and mentoring. It is built on the recognition that teams deliver, not the leader alone. We should spend our time shopping for potential leaders who display business acumen and wisdom, and who have vast reserves of empathy and communications skills. That is a winning combination.

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