Why Most CEOs Are Frauds

Calling yourself a CEO doesn't make you one.

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By Steve Tobak

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There's a wild phenomenon taking hold of the business world. I see it everywhere -- at conferences and events, in dozens of daily interview requests from PR people and across the social media landscape. It's the strangest thing. It's as if I went to bed one night and, when I woke up, everybody was suddenly a CEO.

Maybe I'm being a bit facetious, but you know what I'm talking about. A position that used to be reserved for a real corporate officer with an executive team, a board of directors, an organization to run and mega responsibility has been hijacked by every freelancer and wantrepreneur on Earth.

Related: None of the 5 Ways to Become a Truly Great CEO is Magic

If you're an independent contractor, you're a CEO. Got a self-published book, a blog, a YouTube channel, a podcast or an app on iTunes? Congratulations, you're also a CEO. Even gig workers who drive Ubers, sell stuff on eBay and generate content for peanuts are now CEOs. It's ludicrous.

You want to know what all those self-appointed CEOs are? They're frauds. They're not corporate executives or officers. They don't even know what that means.

They have websites with "about us" pages when there is no "us." They use the plural "our mission" and "our services" when it's just them, all alone in their room. They list "team members" who don't even work there. Instead, they have their own thing. Some even call themselves CEOs of their own one-person gig. I see it all the time.

What's that? You're wondering why I'm getting all bent out of shape about a dumb title? I'll tell you why. Chief executive officer is not a dumb title. It's a real job. A real career. A real profession. And it takes vast experience, knowledge and hard work to achieve what used to be the pinnacle of the corporate world.

Let me tell you something. I spent decades in the high-tech industry. I've worked with hundreds of real corporate executives and startup founders who raised mega-rounds of funding from venture capital firms and corporate investors, achieved successful IPOs and grew their companies into multi-billion dollar enterprises.

Related: 3 Things to Do If You Want to Become a CEO by Age 30

I've known dozens of real CEOs who worked their tails off climbing the ladder, building their expertise and their reputations, meeting the needs of their employees and customers, building real businesses with real products and working for real boards of directors representing real institutional and retail investors.

The sad thing is, the vast majority of the self-proclaimed CEOs have no idea what I'm talking about. They don't have a clue what a real CEO does for a living. They'd probably have a panic attack and pass out if Tim Cook, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella, Howard Schultz, Jaimie Dimon or Fred Smith showed up at their door, handed them the keys to their office and said, "It's all yours."

Look at it this way. You can't just call yourself a doctor or a lawyer. That would be fraudulent. I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't let one of those people perform surgery on me or represent me in court.

Would you hire a tax accountant who doesn't know the tax code? Get in a taxi with a driver who doesn't have a driver's license. Hire a painter who doesn't know the difference between oils and acrylics? Let someone with no experience cutting hair near you with scissors and a razor? Pay a phony electrician to wire your home? Of course not. And what would you call those people? That's right -- you'd call them frauds. Phonies.

The question is, why is a CEO different? I guess anyone can do it, right? Funny thing is, nobody would even consider walking in off the street and passing herself off as a COO, CFO, CMO or CTO of a real corporation without the requisite experience and know-how. But anyone could be their boss, right? No problem.

Related: Want to Be a Great CEO? Start With the Man in the Mirror.

Look, I spent many years climbing the corporate ladder, eventually rising to the level of corporate officer at a number of companies. Some were startups that eventually had successful IPOs. Others were sizeable public companies. I was also CEO of a tech startup myself. As a result, I have quite a bit of respect for real corporate executives.

Even though I now run a small consulting firm, I wouldn't think of calling myself a CEO. Why? Because it's an LLC, not a corporation. There's no board of directors, no executive team and no investors. Just a couple of partners. It would seem ridiculous. I'd feel like a fraud. And you know what? I would be.

For more on what it takes to be successful in today's highly competitive business world, get Steve's new book, Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur, and check out his blog at stevetobak.com.

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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