When I think of the ideal CEO, my mind wanders toward Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Stick with me.
I picture the villainous, advanced T-1000 model Terminator from that movie — liquid metal, shapeshifting, formless, unrelenting.
It isn’t committed to any single identity. It becomes whatever it needs to be in order to accomplish the mission.
That ability, minus the murderous impulse, is what makes a great CEO.
But people often believe an individual only has one profile. In reality, there are many sides to each of us. There are different facets of our personalities that can be brought to bear at any particular moment.
A good CEO is able to adapt and help the company accomplish its mission — whatever it happens to be at the time.
Here’s how it looks in practice:
High-performing CEOs understand their potential for change.
There are two major types of CEOs: one suited for crises, the other for a steady state.
The “crises” CEOs are who most people picture when they hear those three letters. Persuasive, purposeful, and charismatic, these people solve problems and make decisions quickly. You want them at the helm in extreme situations. They take charge.
The “steady state” CEOs are more suited to the long-term — a consistent stretch, punctuated by periodic discontinuities. They’re pensive and analytical. They observe anomalies and outlier events, obsessing about the causes and what they mean.
The funny thing is, archetypal “crisis” CEOs are often fired when a disaster occurs because they didn’t anticipate it.
But that’s actually when you need decisive, execution-oriented leaders. These individuals perform best in extreme situations and can help pull a company through a dangerous time.
When things are going well, when there’s no need for quick decisions and charisma, you want a leader who doesn’t feel the need to always be making a decision. You want someone with endless patience, a person who can wallow in pet theories and pursue odd data points.
This type of leader has a chance of predicting the unexpected, avoiding crises in the first place, and planning far into the future.
They shift between identities constantly, through different situations and throughout their careers.
Any CEO who stays with a company for years will experience both war and peace.
Their ability to alter their identity — often at great personal risk — and become what the situation demands sets them apart.
Unfortunately, this becomes more difficult with age. Many people recoil from the idea of changing their stripes, so they get stuck in their ways. And it’s not just in their daily routines or habits. They look at themselves in the mirror and think, “This is who I am, and that’s the end of it.” But that’s not really true.
The person you are today is not who you were ten years ago.
We have an increasingly static image of our ourselves, but the truth is, those are self-imposed limitations.
It has been shown in a number of studies. Adults can adapt as well as children — it simply takes a bit longer. CEOs with T-1000 capabilities understand this, embrace their situation, and switch forms to capitalize on opportunities.
This is not about changing your personality or putting on an act. It’s about staying attuned to the situation you’re facing — and shifting to act in the appropriate manner.
The best CEOs understand how to cater a decision to the moment, even if that means doing nothing.
People typically value action. When someone takes charge, makes changes, or moves the ball, it’s seen as a positive development. It’s progress, after all.
Action isn’t always movement. Sometimes, deliberate action means choosing to do nothing at all.
Patience may be your best choice in a volatile situation.
I think of when Richard Rumelt, professor of strategy at the UCLA School of Management, talked with Steve Jobs after he came back to Apple. He asked, “What are you trying to do?” Jobs reportedly just smiled and said, “I am going to wait for the next big thing.” He realized what the situation required and didn’t make decisions purely to be seen making decisions.
That doesn’t make it any less difficult to walk into a board meeting and tell everyone you’re not performing some type of action. Everyone wants to hear you’re making decisions and moving onto the next item on the agenda. If not, you’re not actively moving the company forward.
At one of my previous jobs, our CEO usually made decisions at the last minute. That really frustrated some people because they thought his process was a product of indecision. But it never really bothered me. I saw it as a way of increasing the odds of making the correct choice.
Why would you make a decision before you had to? There’s a chance you may discover some information that influences your decision.
Of course, there are times when making a decision is more important than attempting to make a perfect decision. A crisis often just requires action. Sometimes, you just need to decide and move on.
CEOs who stay in their position long-term recognize that different methods of operation will be required of them in different situations. They’re able to make those shifts (perhaps unconsciously) as needed — from patient to decisive, from analytical to purposeful, from peace to war.
That ability to change, Terminator style, allows a CEO to succeed in the long run.