CEOs are human, too

It’s easy to forget that leaders are people, if you happen to be someone who works for such a leader either directly or somewhere in the organizational hierarchy under their ultimate authority.

You can even forget that leaders are human if you don’t work for them. It’s not so hard to understand why that is.

The head of an organization behaves as just that, as they should, so this does separate them from others. They have perceived authority and influence that others in the company don’t.

I say “perceived” because until you become the CEO of some entity, you think that the top leader has more control than they really do. Once you may experience that job, you soon realize that the control you anticipated you’d enjoy is much, much less than you thought. A CEO has lots of customers to attempt to satisfy, including shareholders, board members, contractual partners, the actual customers of the company and yes, all the employees.

A CEO who is truly skilled and knowledgeable about the role learns quickly that the job is more about the ability to catalyze others to positive action, to influence rather than to dictate. Dictation simply doesn’t work.

In the course of fulfilling this difficult role, a wise CEO (like many leaders in an organization) adopts the attitude of servant leadership. This means to consider the role of CEO as a service to the constituents, and not an elite, privileged, exclusive appointment of nobility. CEOs who so conduct themselves often out-perform their peers who may not hold the same view of the job, as the research demonstrates.

Such a servant leader commonly takes the time to mentor others, to look after their development, to coach them along their professional path and to create experiential opportunities for them to advance in their careers, in fact their lives.

All that servant leadership can take its toll, however. Because you can’t please everybody, and as the cynical yet sometimes appropriate axiom goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Servant leaders and parents can be a lot alike. They devote a great deal to their constituents, and especially to their employees. It’s not always received in gratitude, and sometimes it’s even handed back unceremoniously, with a complaint. Just like the petulant and rebellious teenager, mentored staff members can reject the caring, devoted gifts of the CEO, without a thought as to how that will be received. Why is that?

They, like those teens we’ve all known (and been), do not consider their “parent” CEO to be the same feeling, vulnerable people that they themselves are. They, like those teens, do not consider their CEO to be the same type of human.

I had this experience many years ago, as the CEO of my consulting company, which was the largest of its type for its time in San Diego.

I put a lot into the company and the people. One day a talented young staff member, who was my first hired employee, decided to leave the company and work with a person who had shown me deep disrespect and was deceitful. This young consultant had been someone I had “taken under my wing” as the saying goes. I protected her future, invested much education in her development, made sure she was compensated well and stayed up nights worrying about how to help her along her path.

Just like I did with my kids.

When she left, I felt betrayed and despondent -- for a while. Two realizations came to me over time that have served me well since. The first is that to be a servant leader -- or a parent -- means that you do the service without expectation for reciprocal support or affection.

The service is its own reward, for it to truly be service. To be of service, while hoping for a like response from one’s constituents, is a conditional service and not for its own sake.

The second realization is that another person’s emotional state and type of behavior has nothing to do with me, whether I think it to be “good” or “bad”, whether they are grateful or ungrateful, whether they are loyal or not. They are choosing or reacting or feeling because of what is going on inside their own head, not mine. I don’t take it personally so much any more.

Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a great book called “The Four Agreements”, which outlines how and why this dynamic (and others) occur in human behavior. I found the book consistent with research and modern thought in psychology. Interestingly, the book is a summary of Toltec philosophy written down about 1,800 years ago.

Humans have not changed greatly in our quarter million year history, and we are all human, including CEOs. While we can strive to grow and develop, comprehending that expecting gratitude or love in exchange for the love we show is unrealistic, we still need love in our life.

If we love ourselves first, then we’ll be less affected by the lack of affection we receive from others to whom we’ve given the precious time of our lives.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at

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