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CEO Leadership Controversy: The Pay Structure of a Visionary

By Sander Biehn | May 12, 2015

The newspaper was abuzz with a new set of vitriol aimed at a local Atlanta CEO whose shareholders felt didn’t deserve his increasingly high compensation package. They railed against excessively high pay coupled with stock-options and other perks.  However, when you consider the enormity of things a corporate CEO needs to administer in a publically traded company you may be able to understand why the pay is so high.


Personally, you couldn’t pay me enough to do their job. Because while the title on the business card says ‘leader’ they often find themselves mopp


ing up the minutiae.


How do I know this?  A few months back, I attended a talk hosted by Duke University’s Fuqua school of Business. The speech was a very thinly veiled invitation to attend their CEO part-time program.


CEOs need to lead with vision, the speaker began. But how can they, when they spend so little time working on the vision and figuring out how to be innovative in the market?


This speaker then went on to describe the typical day in the life of a CEO.  It was shockingly similar to how most corporate employees spend each day: meetings, phone calls and reviews. The only difference was their purview and the related daily pressure to make sure everything was going just right.


Our speaker concluded by giving us a glimpse of what CEO’s need to do to become visionaries for their organizations.  His advice?


  • Spend time each day working on a vision (seems obvious, but maybe isn’t if your whole day is pre-programed)


  • Write things down.  The speaker suggested CEO’s use a pen and paper tablet for this


I sat dumb-founded in my chair. Do we regularly pay tens of millions of dollars to people who need this kind of advice?  But I was drawn back to a book that a colleague gave me to read. “Organizing Genius” by Warren Bennis.  Bennis writes about some of the greatest organizations our country has ever seen and their respective leaders. One of the key leadership principals he identifies is that great leaders feel they are on a mission from God–as the old Blues Brothers riff goes. Great leaders are laser focused on changing the world.  They feel their company is going to lead the way to a better world.


However, what’s more interesting is what great leaders don’t worry about. They do not focus on how much money their company will be valued at or how they will organize the mess on a day to day basis.  They leave these details to lower level administrators.


Finally, Bennis concludes, great leaders don’t sit around talking about what they will be doing with their millions once they succeed. They seem to operate with a higher purpose.


It all came home to me when I read about Elon Musk’s latest venture— installing Tesla batteries in buildings and homes to store solar energy from local arrays. In talking about the size of the potential market, Musk used interesting terms. He said that there are potentially as many customers for this new system as there are cars on the road today (2 billion or so).


He concluded, “It is not beyond the reach of humanity to make this happen.” He wasn’t licking his chops about how much money his company would make.  His concern for the planet and the future of our children was central to his product launch.


If it is still money you are after, you can go be the Chief Administrator at a large company. I’ll support your pay structure.  But I wouldn’t want to spend my days that way. I don’t intend to be so bankrupt of vision that I need someone from Duke to remind me to write down my ideas.


Or you can set out to change the world.


Elon Musk is worth about $12B according to Forbes. At $20M a year as a CEO it will only take you 600 years to catch up.


Time to out our leaders. Who are the administrators and who are the leaders? Let’s create a list.

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