Cult of the CEO: Meaning over power

Formal authority of CEOs based on power and status is old news, and employees today will follow leaders who demonstrate clarity of purpose and who can inspire. We talk to Tracey Groves from Intelligent Ethics, one of the speakers at a ‘Cult of the CEO’ conference in Dublin today (27 February).

In the age of personality and social media, it’s not surprising that leaders of large organisations can be perceived either as visionary talismans for success, or lacklustre liabilities, responsible for stagnation. But do we expect too much of them?  

In a survey conducted by Hanover Communications and Censuswide on the traits and values of CEOs, 501 Irish employees currently working in companies of 50+ staff were asked about the importance of various character traits in an ideal CEO or head of company.

“From a leadership attributes perspective, the ability to convene, listen, enable, experiment and collaborate will be key indicators of an effective CEO in the unpredictable world that we are now operating in”

Clarity matters more than ever, and almost three quarters (71pc) of respondents agreed a CEO with a clear personality that everyone in the business understands is more likely to run a successful business.

Specifically, they agreed that it’s important for the ideal CEO to be inspiring (87pc), motivating (87pc), and future-thinking (87pc). In comparison, only 40pc and 30pc would describe the current head of their company as motivating and inspiring respectively – a stark contrast between an ideal leadership figure and the reality.

Heroes or villains?

So even though leaders might be clear on intent, according to employees, they aren’t always practicing what they preach. 73pc of Irish employees surveyed agree that their own company CEO, or the equivalent in their company, wants to have a positive impact and 64pc believe their CEO or equivalent acts as role model but 1 in 8 (13pc) aren’t sure they practice what they preach.

And while CEOs might be judged on much more than values and personality, employees’ view on their performance isn’t always positive. When asked to rate their own CEO or head of the company, less than 1 in 5 (20pc) felt their performance would be deemed ‘excellent’, while just under a third of respondents would rate their performance from very poor to average.

The cult of the chief executive is by no means limited to big business – organisations large or small stand or fall on whether the leader at the top turns out to be a super-hero or an arch villain.

The research results were presented by Hanover Dublin today (27 February) at an event titled ‘The Cult of the CEO’. Speakers at the event include Tracey Groves from Intelligent Ethics, Boston-based advisor and writer James Stranko who has advised the Clinton Foundation, Gates Foundation and Ashoka, Glovo director Florian Jensen and Gabbi Cahane, an angel investor and chair of Multiple, Hanover’s brand and culture consultancy.

“The media has had an enormous impact on our perceptions of CEOs and what makes a good one,” said Lorna Jennings, managing director of Hanover Communications’ Dublin practice. “The media shares the desire of its consumers to simplify complexity by identifying real people to serve as shorthand for what are, in reality, many-headed organisations.

“Where 20 years ago you might have seen a short clip on RTE of a CEO’s latest unfortunate slip of the tongue or a stock tumbling mistake, today you can watch it replayed on social media, on RTE News Now and hear it cut down into animating broadcast clips with endless talking heads and commentators ascribing ever more significance to what began as a board room comment.

“A more dangerous effect of the way we paint ordinary people as storybook characters is that they start believing it. Having told our chief executives that they are the company, it’s not entirely unreasonable of them to allow such delusions of grandeur to go to their heads.”

A new perspective on the CEO

We spoke to Tracey Groves about how the Cult of the CEO is no longer what it was and how employees will follow leaders who demonstrate meaning and purpose rather than power and status.

Groves is a multi-award-winning leader with expertise spanning inclusion, diversity, business ethics, culture and behaviours, business transformation and corporate governance. In 2018 she was named one of the Financial Times’ Top 100 Female Champion of Women in Business, and in the same year won the Variety Catherine Award for Consulting.

 How have perceptions of CEOs changed, are workers inspired by the boss being a boss or the values they hold?

Formal authority, based on power and status can no longer be taken for granted by CEOs and senior execs. In a top-down world, formal authority, armed with carrots and sticks, used to be sufficient to get people to do the next thing right, exactly as specified. But in our now-interdependent and connected world, formal authority is less potent. Arguably, only moral authority can build trust, inspire colleagues, create meaning, or help people imagine a different and better future—in other words, enabling them to do the next right things. 

What do I mean by moral authority or moral leadership? Moral leadership is rooted in and guided by a moral framework and a set of principles that inform how leaders approach everything they do: how they interact with others, how they make decisions, how they manage and conduct themselves. It’s not just about what CEOs say, it’s also about what they do and how they make others feel. Above all, moral leadership is about how leaders touch hearts, not just minds – how they enlist others in a shared and significant purpose, and create the organisational climate and conditions where everyone can contribute their fullest talent, feel psychologically safe, and realize their deepest humanity based on a set of shared values. 

If it is values, how do CEOs best demonstrate their integrity?

Integrity is multi-faceted and comprises of honesty, trust, respect and competence.  It’s about knowing about what you can do, and what you can not. It’s about taking ownership and accountability for your actions and words, and showing humility when necessary.  And, maybe most importantly, for CEOs it’s about alignment of words and actions – not just saying it, but doing it.  Integrity is closely related to trustworthiness – showing that you can be trusted to know what you’re doing, to be reliable in your execution and to show compassion and empathy about the consequences of your actions.  Like trust, integrity is something you gain and earn over time through the consistent and constant manifestation of what you do, say and how you make others feel.  The challenge for CEOs?  This is hard work and takes effort and time! It has to be authentic and it has to be led from the top. 

What are the typical performance metrics of a good CEO in 2020?

From a leadership attributes perspective, the ability to convene, listen, enable, experiment and collaborate will be key indicators of an effective CEO in the unpredictable world that we are now operating in.  As the world has become more complex, so too has it become increasingly difficult to predict and plan for the future. Contemporary CEOs need to be prepared for the unpredictable and need to be able to respond in an agile way.  A key competency for the 2020 CEO is one of vigilance; that is an ability to anticipate serious threats, recognise major opportunities, and then act faster than others despite incomplete knowledge. Financial performance metrics are still required of CEOs, but just as critical are the non-financial performance indicators such as ambidexterity and strategic agility (measured through the willingness to adapt and evolve to embrace new ideas and problems), an open and curious mindset focused on constant learning and renewal, and an ability to activate purpose across the organisation through inspiring and motivating others. 

Written by John Kennedy (

Published: 27 February, 2020