The Problem with Visionary CEOs

Visionary CEOs are great at finding the next big thing.
However, these CEOs often cause confusion in the business
when their rambling thoughts are misinterpreted by the
implementers within the company.

The challenge for visionary CEOs is that of refraining
from thinking out loud, unless it is at a meeting
specifically called for strategic planning purposes.

It often happens in communication/update type staff
meetings where a visionary leader will think out loud and
launch into a dissertation about a new idea and its impact
on the company.

The executives who leave this staff meeting may confuse
the CEO’s musing with an actual change in company policy
or direction. As such, members of the executive team
begin thinking about and possibly implementing tactics to
accommodate this “new vision,” rather than concentrating
on the currently accepted strategy.

This miscommunication and misinterpretation is probably
best characterized by the story about J. Edgar Hoover. An
FBI executive showed Hoover a letter to proof before it
was sent to the field agents. Hoover was prone to writing
notes and instructions on documents such as letters. On
this letter, he wrote, “watch the borders.” Hoover meant
the borders on the letter. However, the executive made
sure that he transferred extra agents to the Mexican and
Canadian borders to “watch the borders.”

HR POINTER: To a certain degree, visionary CEOs can be
allowed to blue-sky ideas within an executive team
providing there is a strong #2/COO, who is a practical
implementer and who can control the senior executives.

Meetings with middle managers and employees are the most
dangerous interactions for a visionary CEO. When the CEO
begins describing the future with present tense words, the
unintended consequences are that middle managers and
employees either begin trying to implement what the CEO
said or become discouraged at the thought of profound
structural changes to the business.

It is often said that an organization is like a set of
interlocking wheels with the CEO as the biggest wheel and
successively small wheels throughout the business.

What we know about interlocking wheels is that when one
wheel turns clockwise the next wheel turns
counterclockwise. Additionally, if the first wheel to
move is bigger than the next wheel, a quarter turn on the
big wheel may represent a half turn on the next smaller

If you carry this analogy to its logical conclusion, a
visionary CEO (the big wheel) who is misunderstood by an
executive, may cause the executive to “spin” farther than
the CEO intended and in the opposite direction. The
ripple effect of this throughout the company results in
the smallest wheels near the bottom making 2 or 3 full
revolutions (i.e., confusion).

To prevent this organizational confusion, the visionary
CEO needs to:

#1 Refrain from being the big thinker in public,
especially outside of the CEO’s inner circle.

#2 Preface futuristic ideas during an executive team
meeting with a comment that it is not a change in policy
or direction. Many CEOs just assume that the assembled
group is smart enough to separate the present strategy
from blue-sky ideas. But it is not a question of smarts
as much clear communication.

#3 Select a group of people to meet separately and work
through various scenarios for the new idea.

#4 Select implementers for the new vision once it is set
and then get out of the way because most visionaries don’t
have the temperament for the details and intricacies of

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