Nothing Prepares You for the Sheer Deluge of it


It’s true what they say: it’s lonely at the top.
Nothing Prepares You for the Sheer Deluge of it

Nothing prepares you for your first day leading a large organisation. Not your previous role as Number Two, divisional director or consigliere. Not the expensive course over long days at a major international business school. Definitely not the business hero-type or his (it’s still usually a ‘his’) how-to-be-a-leader book. Suddenly you are in a peer group of one. ‘You feel like you’re ten feet underwater’ says a leading industrialist ‘with big rocks on your feet and the water running very, very fast.’

This feeling of unpreparedness is also a fact. The role of CEO is unique. There is no other job like it in an organisation. ‘If you talk to my Mum, who’s in her eighties now’ says a leader in the food industry ‘she’ll say I wanted to be in charge from birth. It’s always felt natural. But when you are made CEO, nothing trains you for the emotional turmoil.’ Suddenly, everyone from board directors to customers is telling you how to do your job. ‘I see myself at the centre of a vortex, not on top of a pyramid’ says the CEO of a travel company.

When you become the leader your perspective shifts back-and-forth between macro and micro. ‘Suddenly I was the only person who could see the whole business,’ says the CEO of a high street retailer, ‘I was exposed to absolutely everything. On the same day I could be working on a major strategic issue with staff and dealing with a customer gripe in Chichester. I wasn’t expecting the sheer deluge of it.’ Leaders need the eyes of a hawk, which can take in an entire landscape and at the same time pick out the trail of a vole.

The increasingly complex demands of the role are compounded by the speed and suddenness of market disruptions. The speed of innovation and imitation means competitive advantages are short-lived. Social media means you are on call, all the time. As the European head of a global brewer says, ‘We’re fair and open game.’ Leaders have to listen more and move faster. The complexity of their role is one of the reasons why, when asked at a dinner party what their job is, so many CEOs reduce their roles to minor ones (‘I am a milkman,’ ‘I sell beer’) or tell white lies (‘I am a gardener’) to avoid lengthy explanation.

The question is, what are the qualities that enable good leaders to keep their heads above water amidst the deluge? This is the thorny question of innate versus learned leadership – the ancient theme of nature versus nurture. Furthermore, which qualities are in a leader’s DNA, and how, when, and why they reveal themselves, is a more subtle question still.[/html]

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