Ten CEO Myths

Last Updated Nov 20, 2008 6:42 PM EST

I'm not sure why, but everybody has an opinion of CEOs, mostly negative. Well, I've known dozens of CEOs of companies big and small, public and private. I even occupied the corner office myself, albeit for a brief time. And in my experience, the job itself and those hired to do it are nothing like what most think.

Yes, I'm aware that this is likely to be a wildly unpopular post, what with all the bank failures and automotive chiefs in their private jets. Call me a glutton for punishment, if you want. But timely or not, here are ten CEO myths from my own personal experience:

Ten CEO Myths
  1. They're the smartest people in the room. Sometimes, but they're just as likely to be the most narcissistic, dysfunctional, controlling, paranoid, and egotistical people in the room. Sure, they're typically very smart, but so are lots of people.
  2. CEOs are granted powers above those of ordinary mortals. The entire concept of leadership negates that idea. Strong leaders can influence people they have no authority over. Leaders that resort to usurping power are bad at their jobs, period.
  3. It's lonely at the top. CEOs are constantly bombarded by insiders with problems and outsiders who want business. When they're not double and triple booked in internal meetings, they're out meeting with customers, analysts, investors, and the like.
  4. The CEO runs the company. Not really. In a healthy organization, the executive management team runs the company, and VPs have responsibility for their own operating or functional groups. Of course the CEO is "in charge," has ultimate fiduciary responsibility, and is the tie-breaker on key decisions.
  5. Once you get there, you're on easy street. Only if you don't mind failing, and most CEOs have a real problem with that. Successful CEOs are among the hardest working people in any company. They're on 24-7. Many sacrifice family lives for their careers. And the stress is enormous.
  6. The CEO is "the boss." Nobody is ever "the boss," not really. CEOs report to the board of directors and they report to shareholders. At least that's how it's supposed to be. Customers can also yank the CEO's chain. And don't forget about the spouse and kids.
  7. CEOs serve at the board's pleasure. That's how it's supposed to be. But half the time the reverse is true and the board is in the CEO's pocket. Of course, that means "the board is in the CEO's pocket" is also a myth ... half the time.
  8. They make tons of dough. Of course they do, although some make way more than others. Just threw that in to see if you're paying attention.
  9. The buck stops there. Well, that's another one of those "should be, but not necessarily" truths. In reality, when the you-know-what hits the fan, the CEO doesn't necessarily go down with the ship. I'd say CFOs have just as much liability.
  10. They're magnets for the opposite sex. I'm not sure why, but among top paying jobs, CEOs seem to have the least sex appeal. Think about it: actor, athlete, rock star, astronaut, model, or CEO? Come on, really.
  11. CEOs are ethically challenged, greedy SOBs only out for themselves. I've actually never known a CEO who was particularly unethical, greedy or out for themselves. They were all driven by business success. And no, I don't know Ebbers, Kozlowski, Skilling, or any other CEOs convicted of committing fraud.
I know what you're thinking. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to all of these myths. I don't expect this post to change anyone's views; I just thought it would be useful to share an informed data point. Likewise, I'd be very interested in hearing about your CEO experiences or myths, especially if you are one.