CEOs are faking it, Stanford professor says

An upcoming book by Stanford professor Robert Sutton argues that CEOs get more credit than they deserve.

Your company's chief executive might be a pretender, and that may be a good thing, according to Stanford University Professor of Management Science and Engineering Robert Sutton.

Sutton, the author of a 2001 study of corporate innovation, "Weird Ideas that Work," says that a close look at the evidence shows that chief executive officers (CEOs) probably deserve less credit for their company's fortunes than they receive, and that the best of them manage a tough balancing act: secretly aware of their own fallibility, while also realising that any sign of indecisiveness could be fatal to their careers.

"In just about every study I've ever seen ... the amount of control a leader has over the company is exaggerated," Sutton said, speaking during a keynote address at the AO05 Innovation Summit at Stanford Thursday. Although top executives of the largest companies are often considered uniquely powerful, their effectiveness actually dwindles as companies get larger, he said. "If you look at these Fortune 500 companies where they get paid a fortune, they have the least impact."

The notion of the CEO as a captain, steering the corporate ship, isn't so much a fallacy as it is a "half truth," according to Sutton, who has devoted a chapter to the topic in his upcoming book, titled, "Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths, and Total Nonsense."

In fact, leaders -- even great ones -- often have no clear idea where they are going, he said. And they make mistakes.

The best executives, like Intel's former CEO Andy Grove will admit that they face a dilemma in needing to appear decisive, while at the same time being conscious of their limitations. "You have to pretend" Sutton said. "It's sort of a dilemma, but if you want to accept a leadership job, you've got to accept the hypocrisy of it."

In a 2003 interview with the Harvard Business School, Grove admitted that no business leader has "a real understanding of where we are heading."

In the interview, Grove added that it was important not to be weighed down by the burden of making important decisions without a clear picture of things. "Try not to get too depressed in the journey, because there's a professional responsibility. If you are depressed, you can't motivate your staff," he said.

The interview illustrated the dilemma that Grove is "getting even more honest," as his involvement in the day-to-day management of Intel lessens, Sutton said.

Sutton and co-author Jeffrey Pfeffer have tackled other "half truths," in their book, which is to be published next year. Their aim is to shine the light of empirical research on a number of widely held management beliefs, including the idea that leaders should always keep a close eye on their workers, Sutton said.

Sometimes the best managers are the ones who do the least, Sutton said, quoting an aphorism he attributed to 3M's retired senior vice president for research and development, Bill Coyne: "When you plant a seed in the ground, you don't dig it up every week to see how it works."

Sutton even disputed the idea that most of the management advice being published is new or even helpful. "There's too much advice," he said. "Most of it is bad if you actually bother to dig into the evidence."

"If you find a new management idea. I want to see it," he said. "Every idea that's been described as new has, in fact, been around for a very long while."

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

More about 3M AustraliaACTEmpiricalHarvard Business SchoolHISIntelStanford University

Show Comments