CEO Caring: Pathos in the 21st Century


Statue of Aristotle (1915), University of Freiburg (Photo credit: Flickr user maha-online)

I’ve been discussing how Aristotle’s Rhetoric has much to teach the CEOs of today. Specifically, his ethos, logos and pathos as modes of persuasion relate to the three traits I believe are the most powerful tools CEOs have to achieve top performance (I call them the three Cs): credibility, competence, and caring. My last two posts covered the need for CEOs to demonstrate credibility (ethos) and competence (logos). In this post, I’ll cover the last “C”: Caring or pathos.

Pathos refers to the emotional appeals a speaker uses when trying to persuade an audience. For a CEO, showing caring is about both the heart (pathos) and the head (ethos). A CEO must demonstrate passion for the company and its mission to keep an inspired community of employees, customers, shareholders, etc. Caring also refers to the belief that a CEO will do what is right for everyone and not just for himself or herself, which is part of maintaining credibility. This trust takes time to build up but can be quickly destroyed. CEOs often don’t realize that their everyday actions can ruin employees’ perceptions of their sense of caring.

To maintain this trust, they must follow the same rules that their employees must follow. This goes especially for perks. People understand that the CEO may have some perks, but we have all seen situations that reach the absurd. I have seen CEOs who take private jets on worldwide tours while everyone else in the company is on a travel ban. I have seen CEOs with magnificent office suites while everyone is warehoused in small cubes. I have seen CEOs push for golden parachutes while the business they ran is headed for bankruptcy.

SHARM EL SHEIKH/EGYPT, 19 MAY 2008 - Tony Hayw...

Tony Hayward, Group Chief Executive, BP, United Kingdom, at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2008 held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Copyright World Economic Forum ( (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BP CEO Tony Hayward showed a remarkable lack of caring by a public statement he made in 2010 after the Gulf oil spill. While the Deepwater Horizon rig was still spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, he told the Today show that he’d “like my life back.” It’s not just your actions but also your words and the way you say them that influences people’s perceptions of just how much you care.

All of these things and many more instantly destroy trust and leave the CEO with little real influence.

I have two simple rules that I think go a long way to convincing people that you care first about the company and then about yourself:

1) “The troops eat first.” This is an old military saying from the days of the cavalry and came from the common sense logic of feeding the horses first, then the foot soldiers and only then the officers. This is still a good axiom for anyone in leadership.

2) If you want the large upside that comes from being the CEO of a successful company, you should be willing to take more downside if things go badly. For example, if cash is tight and you have to cut people and salaries, then you should take a bigger pay cut that anyone else. Think about everything you do and decide whether it is consistent with doing what is right for everyone in the company.

Scott Weiss, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and the former co-founder and CEO of IronPort Systems (acquired by Cisco in 2007), recently wrote a great article for TechCrunch about how to become a more authentic leader. Some of his recommendations include: Get self-aware, show up to socialize, embrace “professional intimacy,” and – speaking of ethos, logos and pathos – get good at speaking.

There are many more ways to show you care: Seek out the opinions of employees on what changes need to be made. Actually listen, and show that you are open to good ideas from everyone in the organization. Align your success with the success of the company and the employees to promote all for one and one for all attitudes. Communicate your plans thoroughly and often. Uncertainty is the greatest cause of morale issues. By constantly communicating your plan, uncertainty can be minimized and morale will improve.

Like the other two Cs, caring cannot exist in a vacuum: You cannot demonstrate passion or empathy or be inspiring without credibility and competence. Too many CEOs are surprised when their well rehearsed and expertly delivered message falls flat with employees. Credibility, competence and caring are the most powerful tools you have to achieve top performance as a CEO. See how Aristotle’s ethos, logos and pathos can help you as a leader, and not just when you have a speech to give.



  1. What’s missing from the Mozilla CEO debacle commentary | The American CEO - […] have not addressed: The relationship of a CEO to his employees. Since caring is one of the three Cs…

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