CEO’s and the Rules

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CEO, the word is an icon in our culture, symbolizing an individual’s godlike power to act upon the world around them. A word unknown in earlier generations, it started as an acronym for Chief Executive Officer. The word it replaced, President, now seems a bit bland and old fashioned. As a baby boomer, I understand the urge in my generation to jazz things up. We feel better if we get an amazing deal. We get an unspoken glow when our server tells us that she thinks our lunch order is perfect, the Food Channel having made us epicures. It is natural thing that those of us with the ambition aspire to being a CEO rather than President. Social satire is fun, but as Shakespeare pointed out centuries ago, a name is indeed a powerful thing.

As Shakespeare understood, words have power because they shape our reality. We have anointed the title of CEO with great power and imagery. The title of President now sounds a bit stuffy, making us think of President George Bush, the senior one. We imagine a President to be a little clueless and unwilling to really work the levers of power in an organization. The title of President carries the connotation of somebody that deals with all the un-fun stuff and dismal organizational details. What the title of President really calls to mind is the idea of duty.

But CEO by contrast is a flashy word that carries the idea of action, boldness and ultimate power. CEO carries the emotional richness and power that belonged to Proconsul, Baron, Duke or Viceroy in earlier and other cultures. It is a word that brings to mind power and unfettered action, not duty. And as we all recognize, my generation and the children that we have brought into the world are not big on the idea of duty.

CEO’s are lightning rods in our society. They serve as flash points, as symbols, for society’s disagreements about what is good and bad in our culture. Rather than understand the complex reasons for the financial debacles of the past decade, we demonize the CEO’s of those companies involved. Concerned about persistent joblessness? The greed and focus on money, rather than people, of CEO’s is the cause. Wall Street changes the value of a company by billions of dollars based on their assessment of the company’s CEO. The fact that few CEO’s are female, black or gay is positive proof of the deep and persistent discrimination in our society.

But this tale is not about those CEO’s that stride as larger than life figures on the stages of the Wall Street Journal or Fox News or MSNBC. Those CEO’s, those giants, are the winners in the pervasive meritocracy of our culture. They didn’t leave the campfire. Instead they stayed there and became the tribal chieftain. This tale is about those lone riders who have left the campfire and searched out the far country.

Those who have ventured into the dark and survived to build their own company have a different experience than those who stay and win the meritocracy sweepstakes. That different experience starts early in life. Very few parents want their children to leave the metaphorical campfire and go out among the things that go bump in the night. Very few. From the cradle, we are conditioned by our parents, our teachers and our role models to treasure the comfort and perceived safety of the familiar campfire.

Our lives are shaped and molded by the big, slow moving river of our experience. That invisible river carries us through time, all the while shaping our character and our personality, just as surely as the river rocks in our yards were rounded by their own time in the flowing water of a physical river. We don’t know that we are being shaped. It just happens. We are born with a desire to fit in, to succeed, to be liked. We learn what it takes to do those things in a thousand different ways. It is that desire, that feedback loop, that is the river smoothing us to fit in our society. It shapes us from our cribs to our deathbeds.

The big slow river makes itself felt on the first day of our lives. Mom (and Dad if we are lucky) pushes that new baby out into the middle of the stream. We as parents, and I was right there along with all who came before me, emphasize getting good grades, encourage team play and the creation of an youthful resume that will get our children into the “right” university. We talk about the importance of getting a steady job with good benefits to our children. We breathe a sigh of relief when our child gets that job and the-all important benefits. I have been there and done that with my own children. (Sorry kids) But those children who are prone to leave the campfire seldom excel at those things which our parents value.

Based on my own experience, we are misfits from the very beginning. The world looks differently to us than to our classmates. We try to follow the rules and fit in, but it is awkward for us. We can’t help but continually misunderstand how it works. We are inept around other people and so learn to avoid them, particularly in groups. It is a constant struggle to fit in, to make people like us. Our friends and classmates recognize that we are different. An unspoken something is always between us. We are constantly out of step, unable to catch the rhythm of the music that our friends are dancing to.

Our lives seem to be defined by our cluelessness about the rules, the norms, of the groups that we try to belong to. That is until we become a CEO. It is difficult to pinpoint when that day arrives, but for those of us who become CEO, it arrives. We start out as an individual, an intrepid explorer of the world beyond the campfire. We find that we feel at home in the dark. The dark can be dangerous, but it is also a wonderful and free place. In the dark, we are free of the constant struggle to fit in.

But in my case, my wanderings stumbled upon a rich and fertile valley with room for a large new campfire. In time, I became we. We turned into a company, and then a larger company. At some point along the way I became a CEO; no longer concerned with doing the work, no longer a first among equals or just one of the guys who happened to be the boss. My company acquired the size, or the complexity or the ambition to become something else. It became a real company. And then it needed a CEO.

The world shifted. Epiphany happened. Overnight the rules were no longer a constant itch, an irritation that scratched against my wellbeing. All of a sudden, I recognized how much I needed those rules. There were people, my employees, who were spending my money; or rather the bank’s money. They were doing work that had my guarantee behind it. When the employee met with success, that success was shared by both of us. But their failure was all mine. My reputation, house mortgage and the wellbeing of my family were in their hands. Not only that, I imagined that they were looking to me for guidance. For guidance? In a panic, I did not know what to say. What were the rules, procedures and guidelines?

Rules, procedures and guidelines! I had made a virtue of ignoring them. In my past lives, my fellow employees, particularly those who had to supervise my work, had sometimes (often) ground their teeth over my habit of avoiding the rules. Even in the early days of my own company, I had a standard answer for those asking about such things. With a smile I would shrug my shoulders and say, “Do what seems right at the time.” That started to look like a very scary way of handling things now.

Looking into a mirror and seeing your old boss shakes you up. But to turn away from the mirror is to see what appears to be chaos. You see people that work for you making commitments in your name. Those commitments are obligations for you, not for them. They can leave your company tomorrow and be free of whatever damage was caused. You can’t. You have to stay and deal with the inevitable train wrecks.

That in particular made me queasy. In my past, I had always had a loose attachment to the companies for which I had worked. It had been a point of pride to me that I had handled my own work and done it well. All to my own specification and definition, of course. Anything that happened in the company beyond the narrow confines of my own responsibility was not my problem. And if things within that company began to deviate from either prosperity, or what I considered righteous and just, I left. The realization dawned on me that I had been a jerk.

For a few months after my epiphany, guilt over past behavior and worry over present danger obsessed me. I rooted through old files for the procedures and guidelines that I had ignored in the past. But after some months of walking around in the trees, I suddenly saw the forest. The music was playing. Just because I hadn’t heard it didn’t mean that the music wasn’t playing. My employees were dancing to it.

It turns out that my company did have procedures and guidelines. Without my knowledge or participation, my company had evolved the rules of the road. My employees were dancing to my music. It was a tune that I still couldn’t hear, but it was playing and the company was dancing to it.

I had a short period of time to bask in the warm glow of a false safety, but then a sinking feeling began to dawn. There were now limits on my behavior. Being the parent of teenagers sensitized me to a knowledge that would have eluded my grasp otherwise. I slowly realized that I was an example and people were watching me. What I did, how I acted, had consequences. I was no longer free to ride the high country, to roam freely in the dark.

It wasn’t that I could suddenly hear the music. I was still as deaf as a fence post. Years of willful behavior had turned a natural tin ear into absolute deafness. I couldn’t reverse the habits of a lifetime. But now I understood thoroughly and at a very deep level that the dance floor was a crowded place and that it hurt when people crashed into each other.

A little more background is probably in order. As a youngster, I loved to watch television westerns. Shows like Rawhide and Wagon Train had been among my favorites. In those early serials on television, there had always been the role of the “Scout”. A fixture in nearly every tv western, the Scout always had the job of riding ahead of the cattle drive, or the wagon train or the cavalry. The Scout was always the same character; cool and unafraid to speak his mind, occasionally engaging in honorable escapades that made little sense to the rest of the group. The Trail Boss or Wagon Master had to deal with all the sticky issues that came with money or dealing with groups of people. It was a given in those shows that the Scout would have an adversarial role with his boss, the Wagon Master. The Scout was a role model for me. I had idealized and very heavily invested my life story in the role of the Scout.

But the casting for the role of company CEO was clearly modeled on the Wagon Master, not the Scout. It is not a happy day when you realize that you need to grow up. The early days of the company had been exciting, with new horizons every day, constantly feeding my sense of adventure. But now the company had a multitude of employees counting on me to operate and lead an enterprise that provided them with the means to feed their families. The company had customers that were counting on me to make good on the promises I had made to them, critical to their ability to meet their commitments to their own employees and customers.

Employees and customers, both, needed something from me that I wasn’t giving them or at least not committed to giving them.  Being CEO was not just about me. I had lived for some time with the fact that I had put my future and my family’s future on the line. But I realized that I had put the future of many other families on that line as well. They depended on the decisions that I made. They had put their trust in me. They had put their faith in me. Whether I could hear the music or not, they had made serious commitments to me and my music.

Things had to change, starting with myself. I am here to say that it was not easy or fun. I often walked around the office picturing myself as Ward Bond, the actor who played the part of the Wagon Master so many years ago in that old tv western. In fact, when faced with the necessity to make a decision, I often thought with tongue in cheek, “What would Ward Bond do?” It was almost never what I, the Scout, wanted to do.

Many times I tasted a great bitterness. I told myself that I had not signed up for this part of the job. I fantasized about leaving the company. I often wallowed for days in self-pity over the sacrifices that I was making. Sacrifices that people didn’t even realize that I was making. Sacrifice is noble, when it is visible and praiseworthy. Silent and invisible sacrifice is much less satisfying. Self-pity is ugly, whether seen from the inside or outside. But this too, like all things, passed. Life has a way of moving on. It just takes time. Ha ha.

With time, I learned how to navigate the dance floor of my own company. The music in my own company was a continuation of the tune that people had learned in other companies. But the music is not unchanging. It will morph and change over time. Human beings are not committed to fairness or a sense of community. They are prone to push the boundaries to suit their own individual advantage. As a result, some campfires are harmonious and pleasant. Others are ruled by fear and abusive. The dance that is the company’s culture requires cultivation and reinforcement, otherwise it degenerates into squabbles and infighting.

The CEO is always on display. Willful behavior by the CEO towards others encourages petty dictatorships by managers and supervisors. If the CEO is late for work or leaves early, laxity spreads. If the CEO expresses frustration with an employee’s bad judgment, it ensures that few will make judgment calls in the future. There is gossip about the chance encounters of various employees with the CEO. That gossip will be scrutinized and speculated upon by many for clues about the winds of political favor.

It can be a long hard road to accepting the limits that come with the role of CEO. But I found that accepting those limits and learning to live with them brought a warmth that I had never found outside of family. Fitting in around the campfire was a new experience for me and I remember it with a very dear fondness. Being accepted is something that satisfies a deep need inside all of us.  It wasn’t that I had suddenly become anything other than awkward with other people. But employees will provide the CEO with a grace not given to other employees. It was ok when I inadvertently stepped on toes or bumped into people while clumsily navigating the dance floor.

The responsibility that comes with being a CEO brought me to understand the need for procedures, guidelines and practices; those rules that keep us all moving in sync and in a productive way within a workplace. As an individual, I now understood how that web of rules makes for a comfortable and secure home away from home. But there is a danger there as well.

The rules make for a comfortable workplace, but they also blind us. Just as the flame of the campfire washes out our ability to see in the dark, so too do the rules blind us to the reality of the world our company exists in. The metaphor of the campfire is a mental picture of a comfortable reality of a workplace. It is a place where we know what to do, what is expected of us and provides a connection with other people. We are safe when we work within their comforting web.

But the metaphor of the campfire also describes the reality of the world outside the workplace. Companies and organizations exist in a much larger reality that is very dark. It is a black and starless night outside of the campfire circle. To keep families with their flame blinded eyes around the campfire safe; others need to be looking into that dark void for the inevitable wolves. For every company and every workplace, there are indeed wolves out there. And they are hungry.


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