How You Get to be Chairman of the Board

When two of my speech clients were elected chairman of the board of their respective organizations, I looked for a common denominator.

Of the many other reasons I could cite for the prowess of these two in upgrading from CEO to chairman, I found one overarching characteristic: the self-awareness and easy acceptance that they were worthy of the “mantle of leadership.”

One chairman articulated those exact words when he said to me without a trace of self-consciousness, “Because I wear the mantle of leadership …”

You might call this a manifestation of egotism. And, yes, egotism does have many manifestations.

I had many other clients who were chairman of the board of their corporations, and every one was an egotist, too.

Some examples: 

  • The chairman who spent a good 10 minutes debating with me if we should use the word “the” before “strategy” in this sentence: “But strategy by itself is not enough to ensure success.” This investment of his precious time arose from his certitude that his audience would hang on his every word.
  • Another chairman – when I became his speechwriter – sat down and briefed me on just how he wanted his talks styled: I was to use the word “folks” at least once in every speech, and any humor was to be self-deprecatory. He wanted his public image to appear down to earth, despite the air of privilege he exuded in private. 
  • Still another chairman quietly employed a dresser. Maybe because he had no wife to tell him each morning which tie would match his suit.

Egotists are easy targets for jokesters.

Novelist George V. Higgins, for instance, called egotism “the art of seeing in yourself what others cannot see.”

Satirist Ambrose Bierce defined it as doing The New York Times crossword with a pen.

Notre Dame Head Coach Frank Leahy is quoted as saying, “Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity.”

But I never found egotism among my clients to be detrimental to their work.

Instead, I found that a chairman’s egotism – fueled by their lifetime of winning -- armed them with supreme self-confidence and enabled them to go on guts.

It’s as Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, says in the movie “Top Gun”: “You don't have time to think up there. If you think, you're dead.”

I loved being around these people. Even though I was taller than some of them, each seemed to me a little larger than life.

Here’s how I sketch them in my forthcoming novel, Cold Stun:

Jenny discovered that she had entered a corporate world that issued its own citizenship papers. Men like Lauterbach earned yearly compensation measured in many millions of dollars. They were summiteers who operated at Everest levels: board chairmen, presidents, chief executive officers. Jenny’s clients had reached the heights in no small part because they were gifted in their ability to sway the thinking of others. They practiced enchantment. They played just the right levers that would stir board members, customers, employees, stockholders, analysts, newspaper reporters. They left their retainers to get by on second-hand oxygen. They revered their own leadership abilities, crediting themselves with being the prime contributor to their organization’s performance. They understood that people defer to leaders. And, by instinct, they acted in the ways expected of leaders. If acting the role required concealing their own shortcomings, so be it. Their instincts told them that at least some part of leadership is theater, part is deception. You put a better face on things than they really are. If you act confident, you become confident. And the deception becomes truth.

In my next blog: The Queen of the Fairies


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 08:59:38 -0400