CEO Cheerleader Fail: Drawbacks of the Eternal Optimist

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How many ways can a CEO fail? Over the next several months I will count the ways. These failure modes involve the CEO acting in some manner that harms their ability to lead the organization. The key tools of leadership – which I’ll cover in subsequent blog posts – require that the CEO maintain credibility, reveal competence and demonstrate caring. CEOs lose effectiveness when their behavior causes employees to question any of these leadership tools. One that can seem innocuous but is in reality quite harmful, is the cheerleader CEO. In fact, I believe excessive cheerleading is the single biggest sin committed by CEOs.

Yokota_cheerleadersI am a big football fan and find it interesting that if the cheerleaders are doing their job, you can’t tell if their team is winning or losing. It doesn’t matter if their team is down 50-0, the cheerleaders continue to try to lead the fans and encourage the team.

Unfortunately, many CEOs seem to believe that part of their job is to be a cheerleader even if the company is not winning. You may have witnessed this detrimental CEO behavior: The cheerleader CEO is often reticent to share the negatives with employees but cheers anything and everything positive that happens. He or she often starts meetings with rousing emotional appeals. Small victories deserve lavish public pronouncements, in this CEO’s estimation. Over time employees begin to recognize this behavior, which can be perceived as tantamount to the band playing on while the Titanic sinks, and the CEO’s credibility is destroyed.

I believe this behavior is often driven simply by the fear of failure. No one wants to admit that something in his or her charge is not going well. Most people who reach the level of CEO have not had much experience with failure and may be almost paralyzed when faced with the potential of a very public misstep. It is a natural human emotion to want to delay facing a negative event as long as possible.

But the longer the CEO goes without acknowledging anything is wrong, the worse the problem gets and the more embarrassment he faces if he does acknowledge the problem. I often hear CEOs justify this cheerleading behavior by claiming that their employees might worry too much or even begin to leave the company if they learned that things aren’t going well. I think this is a rationalization that isn’t supported by reality.

Imagine being on a football team and not knowing the score after playing four hard quarters. To most people this would be even worse than losing and would quickly lead to players not putting in much effort. It is the same in a company. Employees want to win, but if they are told they always win, then they quickly realize they are not getting the honest truth.

To see if you are guilty of being a cheerleader, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are there material facts about the health of the business that you have withheld from the board or your executive team?
  2. Would employees be surprised if they knew what you know about the company?
  3. Do you avoid talking about specific metrics if they are not positive?
  4. Do you argue with anyone who brings a problem to you that the issue is not really a problem?
  5. Do you only hire people on the executive team who agree with all your decisions?

What are your thoughts about the cheerleader CEO? What examples have you seen of this behavior? For more on this topic, see “What Causes CEO Failure?” on ChiefExecutive.net.

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