The Illusion of Power: Why CEO’s Have Less Influence Than They Think

CEO’s may be the pinnacle of corporate power—at least where the org chart is concerned—but ask any CEO leading an organization through transition who is really in the driver’s seat.

The insightful ones will tell you—it isn’t them. Not really.

In our work with organizations large and small, across the US and internationally, we’ve noticed something interesting. Regardless of what leaders say and do, the organization’s progress seems to depend almost exclusively on the daily decisions of the leaders and specialists below them. 

If you want to meet the real architects of a company’s success (or demise), talk to the managers, supervisors, and front-line workers. Each day, they make thousands of decisions that either support the Executive Team’s direction—or silently sabotage it.

Quietly, subtly, they decide:

  • What will I work on today?
  • What will I prioritize?
  • How will I talk about my work, to my coworkers and to customers?
  • Will I follow the rules, or work around them?
  • Will I follow established practices, or innovate new ones?
  • And on and on.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common for CEO’s to overestimate their own importance. An in-depth time study by Harvard Business School professors Michale Porter and Nitin Nohria found that CEO’s spend just 6% of their time with frontline teams, on average, and only 3% with customers.

When executives fall into the trap of overrelying on their direct reports to communicate and influence others, the researchers argue they risk diminishing their “legitimacy and trustworthiness in the eyes of employees, which is essential to motivating them and winning their support.”

The results? Anemic engagement. Disappointing growth. Strategies that fail to produce the desired outcome.

Effective CEO’s need a new mindset that centers employees, not as “resources,” but as powerful architects of the organization’s success. Here’s how.

3 Mindset Shifts to Drive Real Progress

Before you sell ideas to your customers, sell them to your team.
Leaders often don’t see the need to explain or justify a strategy to their teams—but this becomes a real problem when you start asking team members to do the hard things necessary to achieve success. Great leaders don’t just generate strategy. They influence, persuade, educate, and excite people to implement it. The ability to tell a persuasive story helps, but even stoic leaders can get far with a little humility and transparent presentation of the facts.

Give others the tools to make decisions when you’re not in the room.
You can’t be everywhere at once, and even if you could, you wouldn’t benefit from the diversity of ideas and perspectives that make organizations strong. Instead of weighing in on every key decision, teach others the principles and considerations you use to make decisions. We call this Leader’s Guidance, and it’s a great idea to write those principles down. Over time, this Guidance can help improve the quality and alignment of decision-making…even when you’re not around.

When you don’t understand, or you disagree with a stated obstacle, listen harder.
“Just do it” works for Nike, but it’s not a great leadership tactic. I’ve heard well-meaning, otherwise talented leaders refer to obstacles and impediments as “whining,” “resistance to change,” and “naysayers” more times than I can count. Sometimes, they’re right. But more often, these leaders are abdicating their responsibility to make change easier, not harder, for their teams.

Bottom line? Leaders may have control of the wheel, but the organization is the guts of the car. Without them, you aren’t going to get far.

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