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Do Chief Executives Matter?

It seems obvious that corporate CEOs like Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs are more than consequential. In June 2008 Apple’s shares lost close to $5 after the company admitted that his ‘health issues’ were more serious than first reported. This one incident initially cost the company around $4 billion in market value. Jobs’ history is well-known. His creative genius (along with Steve Wozniak) allowed Apple to flourish around the Macintosh desktop computer during the 1980s then rebound through success of the Mac Book, IPod and IPhone during the 1990s and 2000s. His creativity, prescience and relentless drive to innovate have allowed Apple to grow into a corporate icon. Similar stories abound around such corporate giants as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, or Larry Bossidy. The question then, is whether these CEOs have something that differentiates them from other managers and does it make them indispensible? More critically, do CEOs, in either public or private organizations really matter?

The Public Executive

In his book, Who’s Your City (Basic Books 2008), Richard Florida cites Jane Jacobs’ comment that communities everywhere are filled with creative vigor, but many are ‘managed’ by squelchers who are control freaks who constantly place barriers between innovative employees and community leaders and opportunities for progress. In these cases, narrow-minded, uncreative, uncompromising executives are the antithesis of thoughtful civic development grounded in hard data and a vision of the future. Having worked in government agencies across the Country, I can say that CEOs do indeed matter. Whether mayors, city managers, county commissioners, county administrators, or governors, appointed and elected leaders must have the essential characteristics of openness, vision, awareness, a world view, and the willingness to collaborate. Without these characteristics, their tenure is often viewed as dull, tedious, frustrating, and repressive.

Leadership of the Future

Paul Osterman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has stated that middle managers are the real heroes of successful organizations. While CEOs might come and go, the stability, character, skill, and institutional knowledge of middle managers is generally sufficient to continue an organization’s performance. The enormous pace of change will continue to stress elected and appointed CEOs. More importantly, it will require them to more effectively utilize the mid- to late-career professionals who populate public agencies. This will become more essential as downsizing occurs at every level of government. How CEOs address talent, training, and the sharing of institutional memory will define their ability to lead. Focus must be internal (organization development and performance) as well as external (mission-driven and community centered).

Situational Leadership

The real question is not IF leadership matters, but when it matters. Public leaders – especially elected officials- must respond to situations that are often outside their experience. The ability to seek counsel, review facts, and make decisions that are in the best Common Interest also defines their tenure. The days of figurehead public CEOs is over. Communities need strong, sensible, innovative thinkers who are focused on the future – not the status quo. Transformation will occur. The only question is whether public leaders/ managers will strategically lead or be buffeted about by gale force winds of change.

How would employees and communities rate your various CEOs? What are their characteristics and are the essential elements of leadership, vision, creativity, and progress inherent in their style? IF given the opportunity to strengthen local leadership, is there a willingness to undertake personal and professional growth? Are local leaders prepared for future challenges? CEOs matter…and will matter more every year.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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