How to lead badly: The golden rules for CEOs

How to lead badly: The golden rules for CEOs

Some friends and I recently compiled these rules based on our collective experiences of very bad leadership. Any similarity to any person or company, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. And quite frightening.

Overall approach

1. As the leader, make sure your needs and preferences are at the forefront of your thinking and decision-making at all times. After all, you are in charge and, therefore, the most important person in the company despite what your company-wide emails say about the sales staff. For example, get that merger or acquisition, no matter what the consequences for the company, put it on your CV and move on to a higher paid gig.

2. Change your mind frequently and never, ever, provide a clear rationale for doing so. People need to know where the power is and you are too important to have to explain yourself. If you must explain a change of mind, make the explanation unintelligible to the average person – this will make you seem mysterious and knowledgeable.

3. Create chaos in whatever ways you can. Describe this as “deliberately creating the conditions to develop leaders in uncertain times” or some other pseudo-social-scientific nonsense. This helps keep people busy running in circles and trying to work out what is going on and therefore unable to critically analyse you, or the company’s performance under your leadership. You are, of course, above such criticism.

4. Have a lot of books on leadership on the shelf behind you in your office, just above your head. This will ensure everyone who comes to see you can also see these books and they will, therefore, associate you with being a leader. And intelligent.

An underpinning philosophy

5. Develop your own personal philosophy. Examples we like include ‘I deliberately create chaos and discomfort to see how people behave’; ‘I like to make continual changes because I am never satisfied and am always seeking improvement’; and, our favourite, ‘Under my leadership our company will disrupt the traditional models and transform the industry’. Having a philosophy will serve the dual purpose of making you seem wise and creating a cover for the chaos, discomfort and constant meaningless change you create and the lack of clear direction you have for the company.

Planning and communication

6. Create a strategic plan for the company that is incomprehensible gobbledygook. Talk about it a lot, never providing any clarity around its essence. Ensure the documentation around the plan is long and complex, contains more diagrams than words and uses mixed metaphors that make no logical sense. Add to it frequently. Imply that there is something wrong with anyone who doesn’t understand it. This will ensure you are not held to anything and it will give you the option to change strategic direction at any time, without this being detected by anyone.


7. Restructure the company unnecessarily, accompanied by lots of wordy emails about how the restructure will realign the company with the future (and include lots of guff about how glorious the future will be). This will make you feel important and clever and throw everyone off the scent of you having: distracted the board for a few months; created an excuse for falling business performance; gotten rid of potential threats; and created jobs with inflated salaries for your friends!  What could be easier? Also, you can put the company restructure on your CV to help you move onto a higher-paying gig.

Managing the executive team

8. Have favorites among your direct reports and make sure everyone knows who they are. Change your favorites from time to time. This will ensure your favorites work hard to stay in your good books for as long as possible, and will make the ones you don’t like work harder to try and win your favour.

9. Talk to each direct report about your other direct reports behind their backs and in particular, discuss their failings in detail. Encourage each direct report to do the same about their colleagues. This will ensure that you are aware of all weaknesses, which you can exploit when undertaking performance reviews and determining bonuses, and that the executive team doesn’t trust each other and can’t, therefore, bond behind your back. Oh, and my favourite: tell several of your direct reports they are your chosen successor. This will further reduce any risk that they will bond.

10. Change the executives’ roles and move responsibilities around between executives without consulting them (or telling them about the change at all, if you can get away with it). Put them on performance improvement plans and/or notice of termination if they object. This will keep people on their toes, stop smart-alecs trying to tell you something or other is not their responsibility and will create a bit of chaos – always useful in helping ensure the power remains with you. When inevitable confusion and disagreements occur between staff, you can ride in on your white steed and save the day/implement the performance improvement plan or notice.

Managing down

11. Convince the rank and file workers that you are a good guy (you’ll usually be a guy) through providing free or subsidised chocolate and/or fruit; talking to them occasionally; and sending friendly, upbeat, all-staff emails misrepresenting the performance of the company under your stewardship. This makes you much more credible when you later blame the executive team and other factors when things go wrong.

Managing up

12. Make managing up your first priority. Concentrate primarily on making the board feel comfortable and assured that the company is in good hands. Smooth talking is critical. Selective use of facts will buy time, as will blaming, sacking and replacing the executive. If things start to look shaky performance-wise in the business, blame the market, competition, “changing conditions”, the GFC, and, of course, the executive. With skill and care, you can get away with this for at least a year after things are obviously failing.

13. Protect yourself from the distracting business of running the business. Create an executive floor, sit in the far corner of it with your back to everything and try not to leave your office. If you must come out, don’t stay out for long and try to never leave the floor if you can manage it. Say “I have an open-door policy” a lot to create the right perception, but make sure your door is usually closed and your guard dog (executive assistant) is between you and anyone who wants in. This will save you from having to spend time away from managing up.

14. Keep a close eye on the CFO. If s/he (it’ll usually be a he) is onto you and the falling performance of the company and starts contradicting your impossible predictions and false reports in front of the board, bring this up in a performance review as soon as possible. Make it clear that failure to provide a united front to the board will impact on his performance bonus and future in the company. Move quickly to create questions and doubt in the board’s mind about the CFO’s competence. That way, if he tries to raise concerns about you or the business with the board or chair behind your back, his credibility will already be undermined.

Extra advice if you’re a male CEO (you probably are)

15. Employ mostly men in senior roles (you probably already do). But let’s face it: they are more like you, more comfortable to be with, less emotional, easier to talk to, don’t have distracting breasts and tend to whinge less about work/life balance. Also, they usually like sport and beer and can’t get pregnant.

16. If you have to employ women to keep up appearances of being a good guy, have a token number in senior roles only. See previous point. Talk a lot about equality and the value of women in the organisation and also lovingly mention your wife from time to time (usually a high-flying lawyer/banker/whatever before she gave it up to raise your children, run your house, pick up the dry-cleaning and support your career). Don’t mention the affair with your EA, obviously – along with your new Jag, this screams mid-life crisis and is so passé.

17. Pretend to support any women you do employ at high levels and offer them a lot of unwanted advice, particularly if they are more intelligent and/or competent than you or – heaven forbid – challenge you on anything. Try to identify and pick up any small mistakes, raise them with the woman in question and really examine them and their potential implications in detail. This will undermine her confidence and remind her who is boss. Put her on a performance improvement plan for good measure.

Good luck!


Marcia Devlin is a former company executive director. @MarciaDevlin


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