Leadership and career

The Dangerous “Cult” of CEO Rock Stars

By June 29, 2016 No Comments

Everyone needs a hero, someone they can look up to and admire, someone that projects feelings of positive personality. The world’s history is replete with “great” leaders who instilled in people a feeling of connection, commitment and admiration.

History also tells us that the “leadership dynamic” can also be used for negative purposes. We all have our list of horrible and evil “leaders” who led countries into war or committed other atrocities to further their own personal interests.

Reams of paper have been devoted to distinguishing between so-called “bad” leaders and “good” leaders. Diagnostic tests have been developed and sold to numerous companies willing to spend money to find some type of answer to the question of picking a good leader.

If I was asked (and I have not been as of today) to help a company pick a good CEO, I could easily do so. It is not so hard in my view to distinguish between those leaders who have potential and those who do not.

One category would be immediately eliminated as a pool for prospective CEOs – the current obsession and bidding for rock star CEOs. To put it bluntly, rock star CEOs are a waste of time, with a small number of exceptions. They are not worth the money and do not necessarily translate into successful and sustainable corporate profits. They are usually the quick-fix answer for a Board motivated by anxiety to fill an important, if not critical, position at the company.

The “cult” of CEO rock stars has got to end at some point. Congress and the SEC are trying to restrain the problem by requiring disclosures of executive compensation. That is an indirect way to encourage companies to solve directly a real problem – companies are relying too much on the rock star CEOs instead of doing the hard work and selecting a real CEO based on qualifications, integrity and ability to lead.

Corporate Boards need to go back to the drawing board and apply a new model. Call it a test of “leadership.” We all know the traits of good leaders: honesty, vision, integrity, empathy, ability to listen and learn, self-confidence and real people skills.

You can dress up my list with all types of words and phrases, but when you boil it down, my list is as good as any. A successful CEO is not one who attains personal accomplishment, but who rises to lead a group to achieve positive results.

We all know a successful CEO, one we admire and who can bring about real results and accomplishments. They are not focused on their own personality cult, nor are they obsessed with their own image. They are confident people who know that by connecting with others they can bring about great results for everyone. They thrive on corporate successes and not on personal achievements.

A real CEO is able to attend to a number of areas by leading and relying on high-quality senior mangers that admire and respect the CEO and are committed to the overall mission.

By contrast, a CEO who is concerned about his or her image, relationship with the Board members and quarterly financial results is doomed to fail. It is interesting to watch as the doomed CEOs cultivate their own following and move from company to company. There is a reason for that.

Corporate Boards have the ultimate responsibility in hiring the CEO. They have to jettison the fancy (but meaningless) personality tests and executive consultants and return to basics – apply the bread and butter test of gut instincts and interpersonal assessments. Rarely will you be fooled when you return to basics and judge a person as a potential leader on the basic qualifications of honesty, vision, integrity, empathy, ability to listen and learn, self-confidence and real people skills.


Michael-Volkov-leclairryanMichael Volkov is the CEO of The Volkov Law Group LLC, where he provides compliance, internal investigation and white collar defense services.  He can be reached at mvolkov@volkovlaw.com.  His practice focuses on white collar defense, corporate compliance, internal investigations, and regulatory enforcement matters. He is a former federal prosecutor with almost 30 years of experience in a variety of government positions and private practice.

Michael maintains a well-known blog: Corruption Crime & Compliance which is frequently cited by anti-corruption professionals and professionals in the compliance industry.Michael has extensive experience representing clients on matters involving the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the UK Bribery Act, money laundering, Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), export controls, sanctions and International Traffic in Arms, False Claims Act, Congressional investigations, online gambling and regulatory enforcement issues.

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