Is it the end of Superhero Leaders? I do hope so!

The appointment of Meg Whitman as CEO of HP is amazing. She is the former CEO of eBay who then spent a $100m failing to become governor of California (interestingly campaigning shoulder to shoulder with a former CEO of HP – Carly Fiorina – going for the Senate). Whitman flagged badly as CEO of eBay as it became more mature – ie. more like HP! For its first 60 years, HP exemplified everything that is great about Silicon Valley but since 1999 the company has lost 6 CEOs. The problem seems to be that the board has tried to appoint super stars.

Schumpeter in the October 1st edition of the Economist goes into further detail on the problem with “Superheroes” http://econ.st/qtxDKs . He also quotes Jim Collins who insists that great companies recruit from within – Jim Collins also reminds us that the most sustainable CEOs also tend to be people who do not wear their ego on their shoulders. So what’s the betting Whitman will be a success? Various studies around CEO recruitment suggest it is unlikely.

From a leadership development perspective, we know that the best leaders are those who listen, involve their staff, and give recognition to others when things go right. They create a climate where everyone in the company feels a part. We also know that leadership is very contextual and just because someone has succeeded in one environment, culture or company, there is little evidence to support they will succeed in a different one. It doesn’t mean they won’t, just that if they are a one or two trick pony those tricks may not work elsewhere. For a leader to be able to transfer from one organisation to another with a good chance of success s/he should have the six EI (Emotional Intelligence) leadership styles in her/his kit bag. Lou Gerstner, an outsider who saved IBM, is probably the best exception to the rule but I bet he was good at several leadership styles to use appropriately to fit the context.

EI competence would be a much better measure of a leader’s chances of success in a new role than how successful they had been elsewhere. But unfortunately a board or investors will nearly always choose someone who has succeeded elsewhere, not thinking too much about the context, because in the scheme of things they won’t get blamed for choosing someone like that if they fail. It’s a bit like “you can’t get fired for choosing McKinsey or IBM”. We need more courage in the board room.

1 Response to “Is it the end of Superhero Leaders? I do hope so!”


  1. 1 Rohan Narse 03/10/2011 at 7:27 am

    John, this is as direct a blog as it can ever be and I congratulate you on just being that.

    My own experience is that all this, recruitment of such kinds, stems from fear and with that, the singular lack of presence amongst board members creates a ‘sheep mentality’. They then look for the best ‘ego states’ outside that give them a momentary or perhaps temporary sense of ‘feel good’ and ‘power’ and the essential is missed.

    In the times we are inheriting, we need leaders who are more fluid, conscious of themselves and their surroundings, who understand or relate to art deeply and see its qualitative impact on creating possibilities.

    Thank you again


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