Chief Executive Officers Making Meaning of Leadership:
Generalizations from Empirical Research
by Mike Horne, Ph.D

A relaxed stroll through the aisles of most bookshops will establish that business people are consumed by a perceived or real crisis in leadership and with celebrity leaders. Although topical exhaustion has settled in for some, the desire among CEOs for learning about leaders and leadership is insatiable. The reason for the curiosity is natural and practical: CEOs want to make their organizations better places.

Recently, I led a research project partially focused on the meaning chief executive ascribe to leadership. Research participants were chief executives of significant organizations in North America. This particular research project explored the conceptions, definitions, expressions, perspectives, and values that chief executives attribute to the concept of organizational leadership. The research yielded insight into the meaning chief executives make of leadership.

Many executives are aware that leadership is one of the most researched and least understood topics. It's unlikely in the foreseeable future that a complete and shared understanding of leadership will develop. The single word that best captures the conceptions and definitions of organizational leadership is diversity. Experienced leaders either relish the diversity and others find it pointless and unnecessary. Whatever your response to this diversity, the relationship between meaning-making and performance is logical.

Meaning deepens individual and organizational capacity and ability to perform. When chief executives measure leadership as vital to organizational performance, the opportunities for personal and organization development are expansive. What we pay attention to gets measured and rewarded.

In most businesses, chief executives establish tones and patterns for leadership and organization development. These practices are influenced by the definitions CEOs give to leadership and by the description of leadership processes. The article begins by describing the fabric of the CEO's role and expands to consider how leadership development consultants assist CEOs in deepening leadership understanding.

The long and fast world of the CEO supports contemporary ideas for leadership development

The complex role environment of the CEO both enables and restrains deeper understanding of leadership. The effects of positional power and scarce time resources conspire to avert regular and honest CEO leadership development feedback. Additionally, the CEO role sets a trap of self-reinforcement affirming sincere beliefs that "my way is the right way." Personal and carrier success--constant success--creates a barrier to CEO's deepening personal leadership understanding.

Fortunately for the organization, there is usually display a strong correlation between CEO self-identity and fit for the leadership role. The fit is shaped by early life experiences, typically as youth leaders in civic organizations and sports teams. Additionally, chief executives are the beneficiaries of strong mentors early and throughout life. At times, these mentors encourage CEOs, and at other times, they mentors push them. These influential mentors, and additional mutually respectful relationships, support aspirations to the chief executive officer role. When individuals reach the CEO role, these leaders are influential change agents who have the competitive determination to succeed and to win.

The CEO's office is an extremely demanding and time-pressured environment. The continuous torrent of marketplace and organizational issues creates complex navigational territories. When CEOs successfully balance ambition, commitment, and perseverance, they become conscious their abilities to unleash leadership potential in others.

Childhood experiences, nurtured in a series of reinforcing leadership and career events in young adulthood, significantly contribute to CEO leadership performance as a mature adult. This factor supports the contemporary notion that organizational leadership development in organizations is a long-term endeavor. CEOs regret that their increasingly hurried work environments leave minuscule amounts of time for leadership reflection. The scarcity of time supports a conclusion that leadership development needs to be rooted in the fast world of organizational experience and in the sanctuary of the classroom.

CEOs describe leaders and leadership

The parallels between the description of leaders and leadership are obvious. Naturally, chief executives describe leaders as action-oriented and leadership as the focus on vision, development (in a broad context), and follow-through. When naming leaders, chief executives are more likely to identify civic and social personalities than they are to identify business leaders. CEOs speak more of King, Gandhi, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Thatcher than they do of Welch and Ford, to name a few. Ego-protection may be cause of frequent civic leader identification, but it suggests that CEOs admire the energy and discipline that it takes to live out the leadership role.

When asked to define leadership, CEO responses bear little similarity to one and the other but they all reflect precision in response. Here are some definitions of leadership that CEOs presented:

  • Leadership allows a group of people to achieve a greater good together
  • It's a matter of effectiveness; it's the right thing, dealing with the right thing. It's that simple.
  • Leadership is a force, it is a talent, it is a commodity that is neither good or bad, but it has the potential for both greatly
  • My sense of leadership is the empowerment of others. I see it as the almost minute-by-minute, or hour-by-hour decision making that relates to human relations.

While the concepts of leadership are easily summarized, CEOs are quick to note that leadership is hard work. Chief executives observed that few employees are willing to take risks, to learn from their errors, and to move on. They also admit to having little interest in leader training despite that the development of new leaders is one of their primary tasks. The interplay of these forces contributes to a dearth of leadership talent in organizations. Pragmatic chief executives recognize that these forces impede the development and effectiveness of organizational succession management.

Valuing and Expressing Leadership

Values are defined as principles are qualities that are intrinsically valuable or desirable. In practice, values are often described with multiple words and may appear as skills or competencies. Chief executives tend to be exhaustive in their description and also tend to reflect conventional value labels. Among the values that CEOs identify as factors that contribute to leader success are credibility, honesty, humility, loyalty and trust.

I have compared the values expressed by CEOs to other identification groups, including scholars and consultants, and have noted a striking difference. Both scholars and consultants describe "flexible" value systems, or the use of values to inform behaviors. CEOs aren't academic in their pronouncement of values.

CEOs' values, like their definitions of leadership, are influenced by (a) family influences in early life and, (b) personal and professional crises. Parents and family mates are essential in the development of spiritual values and the shaping of consequence and reward behaviors. CEOs' values are tests by situations that are "thrown" at them, causing the CEO to think and to rethink his or her values.

The positional role of the CEO, and a lifetime of leadership reinforcement, gives the CEO a claim on the title of leader. While CEOs clearly think of themselves as leaders, many respondents in my study did so with explanation. The explanations generally take the tone of "that doesn't sound very humble," and "if you would have asked me that question a few years ago, I would have averted my eyes." Why do CEOs sometimes feel awkward in their self-identification of leaders despite a clear preference to be known as leaders?

The role of consultants in deepening CEO understanding of leadership

The role of the CEO is changing dramatically. The de-layering and increasing spans of controls in organizations present new challenges to seasoned organizational leaders. Business climates are often no longer predictable, and yesterday's news may no longer hold the keys to the future of an organization. Leadership, however, will always distinguish organizations and contribute to their overall performance.

The relationship between a leadership development consultants and CEOs in this journey is complex. The relationship is bound by the creation of value but layered in issues of authority, change, growth, and development. All too often, external leadership development consultants are excessively deferential and judgmental of chief executives. Unfortunately, many consultants lack the focus on the particular organization's objectives and intended results. Even in the web of this complex relationship, the value of external consultation is obvious.

External leadership development consultants who have breadth in their organizational experiences bring perspectives that are typically inaccessible to the chief executive. These perspectives can serve the CEO well, particularly in when the coach acts in the role of confidant and coach. Most CEOs acknowledge the skilled consultants are able to bring out the best in people and organizations.

External leadership development consultants differ from others attempting to bolster their consulting practices, including university-based scholars and members of the internal training and development department. Effective external leadership development consultants, like successful chief executives, realize that that development is a process requiring important results from a long-term investment scheme.


In a nutshell, many CEOs feel fated to become organizational leaders. They believe in their leadership abilities. Their abilities and skills have been developed and reinforced throughout life. Despite this unintended fate for leadership, CEOs recognize that their jobs and roles are greater than their individual selves. While they enjoy the power provided by their role, they firmly believe that they are changing people, institutions, and societies.

Chief executives benefit from a continuing exploration of leadership as a way of exploding their potential. They benefit from challenge and reinforcement. Few CEOs that I know are exceptional alternative generators. Rather, they are decisive decision makers skilled at problem-solving and implementation. In order to explode their development, the exposition of alternatives is a necessity. Gifted consultants provide the relationship and freedom necessary to learn.

In increasing their development potential, effective CEOs acknowledge their past. In acknowledging their pasts, they reflect on the possibilities for learning and realize that there is nothing that they can do about history. However, they know that there is everything they can do about the future.

[ Home Free Articles Keynotes and Programs
Teleconferences Booklets Services Newsletter About Our Team ]

P.O. Box 10004
Pleasanton, CA 94588
Phone: (925) 485-5425

  © Leadership Acts. All rights reserved