The Boy Who Would Be CEO

I read something in the May issue of the London Financial Times that struck a chord with me: a feature titled, "I want to be like you—advice for the would-be CEO."
Nov 01, 2004


Sander A. Flaum
In the article, Lucy Kellaway reviews the book Wisdom for a Young CEO by Doug Barry, an adolescent from Philadelphia. The book is a compendium of the 100 letters he wrote to the world's top CEOs and their responses. Barry had always wanted to be a CEO and he wanted advice about the ladder up, straight from the horse's mouth.

Kellaway writes, "The first incredible thing about these letters is that there are so many of them. The second remarkable thing is that almost all the letters are the same." The leaders almost all list passion, respect, ethics, listening, teamwork, and lifelong learning as the driving motives for their work. Kellaway states in her review, "I don't accept this at all. I suspect the uncanny similarity of their letters is the fault of the leadership industry. This says that there is only one way to lead—the emotional-intelligence-coaching-motivational way."

Near the end of the article, Kellaway lists some of the things she believes to be true about CEOs, admitting that not one of these truths was found in the100 letters from the top. Here is a sample: "You need to have a huge amount of personal ambition to climb the ladder; you will work so hard and so intensely that you will have little time or energy for anything else; you will have an inordinate amount of attention placed on you; and the overwhelming likelihood is that your stay at the top will end in failure." This last one, she reminds us, is evidenced by the fact that many of the CEOs Barry wrote to four years ago have since been ousted from their positions for issues of performance or ethics.

As a former CEO, I can't argue with Kellaway. It is one of the toughest jobs around, and to do it well every day requires all the energy one possesses. To do this job well is a way of life, a practice, not a position. Being a leader isn't for everybody, despite the "leadership industry" to which Kellaway refers that is packaging the practice as if it were. At the end of her piece Kellaway reflects: "If I were Doug's mum, I would have mixed feelings about his endeavor. As a parent, you hope your children will not want to be actors or rally drivers. Even more, you hope they won't want to be CEOs." Kellaway wants to make sure that business leadership is seen for what it is—one of the hardest jobs there is.

Barry didn't write me to seek advice about the road to CEO, but if he had, I couldn't have offered him a formula or a simple aphorism to sum it up. When I asked my friend John Glenn what it means to lead, he said much of leadership is a mystery to him. He couldn't quantify it, yet he practiced it. He said he was probably able to do it day in and day out because of the level of enthusiasm and commitment he had for his work. As a military pilot, test pilot, astronaut, and senator, his love for what he was doing and his sense of purpose and pride in it carried the day. His leadership was a natural extension of his commitment to the task at hand. The great leaders of history loved their tasks, not their titles. They put up with the burdens of their operational position because their belief in their missions was so unshakably strong.

My advice to Barry and to all young people is to find that thing you feel incomparably called to do. If the task gets deep enough into your guts, you might have no other option but to lead. Leadership in effect may become a choiceless choice because your level of commitment simply makes you the most qualified to inspire and teach others to build on your mission. But this is not an easy life that comes with a handbook for success.