It takes a special breed of individual to pursue a CEO role and its responsibilities. At the very least, the individual has to have drive, guts, smarts and heart.
Beyond general business acumen, many CEOs specialize in leadership, sales, delegation, execution, strategic vision, mergers and acquisitions, managing turn arounds or any number of other skills necessary for success.
However, there are also three core fears that every CEO has in varying degrees. While these aren’t the only fears that they may have, these are the three most observable fears that manifest from the corner office.
Fear #1: Their information is incomplete
Nobody likes to bring the boss bad news, especially if the CEO has an animated personality or is known as being extremely tough. To avoid being the bearers of bad information, subordinates and direct reports often spend hours upon hours couching, tweaking and watering down bad news to make it more palatable to the top dog.
Middle managers and VPs spend hours in meetings and on conference calls laboring over the order, content and messaging contained in PowerPoint decks to minimize the CEO's angst derived from under whelming factoids and sub-par data points.
Through these machinations, negative information morphs so much that it's virtually useless.
Don't kid yourself, this type of message manipulation happens a lot in corporations and businesses of all sizes. Selective information sharing and group think are crippling practices that ultimately hurt every organization and its senior leaders.
Smart CEOs recognize this risk and the vulnerability they face with overly-sanitized information. The best solution to this problem is for the CEO and senior leadership to create a culture of transparency that spurs individuals to elevate bad news to the boss as quickly and completely as possible.
Fear #2: They will make the wrong decision
Usually, when a decision gets to the C-level of an organization, it’s a difficult decision that no one else in the organization can or is willing to make.
Ultimately, the daily decisions that reach the chief executive officer are thorny Catch-22s or the lesser of two evils where they’re striving to balance the most upside with the least downside.
Successfully neutralizing this CEO fear requires a combination of the best information available and the best advisors. The best top executives surround themselves with trusted counselors and experts both within and outside the organization, because the best decisions are generated by a diversity of perspectives.
Business executives rarely have the luxury of 100 percent of the necessary information to make every decision and need to rely on the expertise of their staff.
Within the U.S. military - a frequent business analog - successful leaders such as Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell have said that they'll wait for 70 percent of the facts to become available, then factor in the recommendations of their advisors to help fill the information gap when making mission-critical decisions.
Fear #3: They don’t want to look foolish
This is perhaps the most surprising fear among top executives. We tend to assume that once someone becomes a CEO they are thick-skinned, tough-minded individuals who are immune to such human foibles as worrying about the perception of others. We assume they have developed expert coping skills, but that's rarely the case.
No matter how much of a maverick or iconoclast they might be, the perceptions and opinions of others matter to CEOs.
The reality is, that once a man or woman reaches the top spot in an organization they have nowhere to hide if things go wrong. Additionally, once in that top position, the stakes and risks are much higher.
Many CEOs fear there’s little professional redemption if they fall from grace or look foolish. They believe that their credibility among key stakeholders such as shareholders, board members, customers, union leaders, employees, regulators, etc., might never be restored if they screw-up or look foolish.
While that might be true in a few instances for the Bernie Madoffs and Bernie Ebbers of the world, the reality is that most CEOs are able to bounce back from adverse perceptions and missteps.
The best way to defuse this fear is for CEOs to always assume that everything they say or do – on the job or in private - will be on the front page of their hometown newspaper. A CEO job is a 24/7 job. There is no time off. The best execs accept that responsibility and carry and convey themselves appropriately.
Additionally, helping top executives see their blind spots and avoid resultant mistakes are invaluable ways that support staff and direct reports can help alleviate this particular CEO fear.
However, CEOs make mistakes - we all do.
The mistakes of top execs tend to be more public and pronounced than those of the typical individual, so the fallout of looking foolish is much more real and magnified. The best way for CEOs to handle public perception mistakes is to accept responsibility quickly, apologize to the appropriate group(s) as needed and share the steps that will be taken to prevent similar miscues in the future.
It’s easy to think that the power, wealth and influence of CEOs empowers them to fear nothing, but that’s simply not true. They do have fears. Trusted individuals who are able to assuage those executive fears will always be valued within organizations and by the CEO.