The Doughnut CEO

Dec 28, 2010

This week we’re examining the difference between positionship and leadership, and in particular, exploring the dynamic patterns that may indicate you or someone else is using their position to achieve things, rather than doing the hard work of actual leadership.The first such pattern is what I call The Doughnut CEO. Here’s what that looks like:

The Doughnut CEO

You’ll see that the Doughnut CEO has warped the traditional org chart setup by (a) weakening the peer interaction between his or her managers, and (b) strengthening their personal, direct interaction with each manager. This places the CEO (or the leader of a division, department, project, group or team) at the center of all the action: there is no way to process any material decision or action without going to / through the CEO – and that usually happens on a one-on-one, not a group basis.

Why this happens: There are three circumstances that cause a leader to adopt the Doughnut approach:

1. Inexperience or lack of confidence, leading to a fear that if they allow their managers to act as an adult group, that the managers will gang up on the CEO, or at least expose the CEO’s weaknesses.

2. Witnessing traumatic failure: Seeing a business collapse through bad decision-making by a team of managers (even if the CEO was not directly involved, and merely witnessed the events) can sometimes be traumatizing to the extent that the CEO finds it almost impossible to trust a team to do the right thing.

3. Need for personal validation: On occasion an individual simply has so much of their identity tied up in their role as a CEO (or leader of a division, department, project, group or team) that they cannot let go of any element of the role to someone else, including their own team members.

What happens as a result: Weak, compliant managers. Domineering, micromanaging CEO. Growth capped at the ability of the CEO to manage everything in detail. Good talent leaves. Meetings are pointless, as the CEO makes all the real decisions in a ‘kitchen cabinet’. No challenge function, little real initiative, stalled step growth. Loss of creativity, risk-taking and healthy debate. Infantilization of the organization.

How to fix it: Timing is all. As with all the examples we’ll look at this week, this dynamic can only be changed if and when The Doughnut CEO sees at an emotional as well as at an intellectual level that their attempts at positioning rather than leading are highly detrimental to both the organization and their own personal development.

For this reason, causes 1. and 2. above are much easier to deal with than 3., where the CEO is usually too highly invested in positioning to ever let go. In the cases of 1. and 2., coaching and mentoring can help, as can setting up accountability for the CEO (reporting to a board, or a group of advisors, or just a couple of respected colleagues).

Tomorrow: The Sandwich CEO.