You are the CEO for a reason

Before the first workshop with a new client, I meet with the organization’s CEO or Executive Director to share with them the purpose of the event, outline my approach, and review their role in helping the group achieve its desired outcomes. Although every individual is different, I’ve witnessed a remarkable commonality among the responses I receive from CEOs when discussing that last point, their role in the meeting. “Don’t let me dominate” is their universal refrain, followed quickly by “I need to hear what other people have to say.” On certain occasions such a caution is in order as some leaders are prone to monologue marathons that can rapidly suck the energy from the room, leaving others wondering why they were asked to attend in the first place.

However, in most cases, I find the opposite actually occurs – leaders are too quiet in the workshop. They sit back, a pensive look their constant companion, nod a lot, laugh when appropriate, but rarely offer their point of view. The desire to draw out the opinions of their team, seeking a broad spectrum of views is undoubtedly valuable and to be commended, but ultimately their reticence is at least as problematic as taking the meeting hostage by controlling the flow of dialog.

It’s an inevitable fact of organizational life that we all look to our leaders for cues. Therefore, when in a workshop or meeting, we find the CEO sitting back and offering no guidance or personal insights, other attendees can misinterpret that silence as a signal the chief isn’t engaged in the process. The leap of logic then continues to: If he or she isn’t engaged, then the meeting probably isn’t that important. And culminates with: if it’s not important, why am I here, when there is plenty of ‘real work’ stacked up at my desk right now?

At the end of the day, the CEO is there for a reason – to make the difficult decisions. Taking the counsel of well-informed subordinates, and listening to a diverse array of opinions is sure to lead to better decisions and improved buy-in from everyone, but when push comes to shove leaders must illuminate the organization’s path forward. I’ve had the privilege of seeing brilliant CEOs in action over the years, and one of my favorites was a gentleman who mastered the delicate balance of seeking input from others but always making a firm commitment based on his own knowledge and beliefs. In meetings this man, a brilliant individual by any account, was always attentive, asked seemingly simple questions, showing his vulnerability, but never failed to lend several insightful comments to the discussion. When it was time for a decision to be made he summarized the key points raised to ensure he was accurately portraying the opinions that had been presented, then proceeded to lay out the rationale for his decision. You were free to challenge it, of course, a constructive conflict was always welcomed, but when it was time for action he accepted responsibility and issued the final word on the subject.

We’re all leaders in some capacity. Let’s remember that our challenge in that role is to seek the opinions of others, stimulate dialog on issues, and when the time comes always be willing to step to the forefront, accept responsibility, and perform the leader’s ultimate task – making decisions.

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