Visionary vs. CEO


John Kamensky, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of GovernmentMy last blog entry on “Implementer-in-Chief” was posted before the interchange at the Nevada primary debate on the role of the President – visionary or CEO — between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.  I’ve been encouraged to elaborate!

My observation is that the next President needs to provide both visionary leadership as well as ensure pragmatic implementation of his or her promises.

The question is the degree to which a President leans one way or the other.  That must be based on what is called for.  President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both were visionary leaders.  But they also ensured things got done.

A recent book, “The Starfish and the Spider,” about the evolution of “leaderless” organizations, has an interesting passage about two different leadership types:  the catalyst (or visionary) and the CEO:

 “A CEO is The Boss.  He’s in charge, and he occupies the top of the hierarchy.  A catalyst interacts with people as a peer.  He comes across as your friend.  Because CEOs are at the tope of the pyramid, they lead by command-and-control.  Catalysts, on the other hand, depend on trust.  CEOs must be rational; their job is to create shareholder value.  Catalysts depend on emotional intelligence; their job is to create personal relationships.  CEOs are powerful and directive; they’re at the helm.  Catalysts are inspirational and collaborative; they talk about ideology [their vision] and urge people to work together to make the ideology a reality. . . . .” 

While this passage puts the differences a bit starkly, they give a flavor of the two styles.  But in reality, a leader can use either or both, depending on the point in time and the issue at hand. 

IBM Center has published a series of reports over the years on leadership.  It has also sponsored a radio show which, over the years, has had hundreds of guests talk about their management and leadership efforts.  Our most recent magazine contrasts the leadership styles of OMB deputy director Clay Johnson and Governor Tim Kaine.  They seem to reflect these two styles.  Johnson talks about clearly defining accountability and the need to hold individuals responsible.  Kaine talks about he establishes “meaningful goals” and then helps craft the collaborative relationships needed to make the goals happen.

There are over a quarter of a million books, articles on the topic of “leadership.”  So clearly, there’s no one right approach that fits all circumstances. 

Possibly more important than the “visionary vs. CEO” leadership style is the values he or she brings to the job in terms of how they will govern.  The key will be defining, and making tradeoffs between, different sets of management values.   What choices would he or she make when faced with making tradeoffs between improving (or protecting) the management capacity of agencies versus using the management systems for other purposes, such as social, economic, environmental, or political goals (e.g., earmarks), or risk avoidance.

For example, do you leverage the administrative systems of government to achieve social policy goals?  If your Secretary of X comes to you asking for an executive order to set targets for federal contracts to small, minority businesses (or green energy goals, or grants to urban zones, or disabled veterans, or rural zones), do you support him or her, or do you support your head of acquisition policy who tells you that layering the procurement system with scores of unrelated requirements will slow down or add costs to mission-based contracting efforts across the government, possibly affecting the mission of other agencies?  Or do you pursue those goals through other means?

Or, in a effort to avoid (rather than manage) risk, do you let your staff react to every headline with bad news about an administrative mishap (misspending on purchase cards, buying first class airline seats, use of computer games, overly generous bonuses to executives, whatever) and create new directives to make sure it doesn’t happen again, or do you use risk management techniques to determine whether the new across-the-board fix is more costly than the original problem?

Of course those kinds questions won’t (and shouldn’t) be asked in a campaign.  They’re certainly not visionary! , but clearly they are the kinds of issues that a new President’s staff will oftentimes be facing.  How he or she sets the tone will matter, even if he or she doesn’t actually ever address these kinds of issues directly.


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3 Responses to “Visionary vs. CEO”

  1. Norm Linsky Says:

    Mr. Kamensky, thank you for your thoughtful blog entry on this critically important topic. We look forward to further postings from you.

  2. John Kamensky Says:

    Norm — Thanks! Your insights are welcome, as well! JOHN

  3. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    In the Second Tradition of AA there is a statement “Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern”. Some where in the command and control mind set the fact that you serve those you led has been lost, John Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Maine Corps Medal for his life saving efforts when PT-109 was ramed and sunk.

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