“The CEO Whisperer”

Early this summer The Wall Street Journal featured an interview with Rich Lesser. Lesser had been head of Boston Consulting Group for nine years. Additionally he was known as the “CEO Whisperer” who had “made a career” out of advising other CEOs.

No doubt he was paid big bucks, very big bucks for what he did. So, I would’ve loved to know what exactly his wisdom consisted of. But, of course, the specifics of what Lesser said to his clients would have depended on the specifics of their situations.

Still, even in this short interview, some of Lesser’s more important leadership lessons became clear. In part, this was because he articulated them clearly, if perhaps a bit clumsily. And in part this was because they were hymns I’ve been singing for years. Specifically, I’ve argued, as does Lesser, that being a leader now is more difficult than it used to be. Why? Because leaders in liberal democracies – leaders in business, in government, and for that matter leaders everyplace else – do not have as much power as they did even a decade ago, and they do not have as much authority.

Here is some of what Lesser said when he spoke with the WSJ.  

  • Times have changed. The context today is different from what it was yesterday.

Lesser: “The CEOs I talk to” have “so much more on their minds” than they did “even five years ago.”

  • Leaders are weaker than they used to be. This makes it harder for them to get their followers – their many different stakeholders – to follow.

Lesser: In today’s world, CEOs “have to have a learning mind-set, which means [they] have to be ready to listen to people – not just the people [they’re] comfortable with.”

  • Followers are stronger than they used to be. They are more entitled and emboldened. And social media provide them with a heretofore unimagined platform, and megaphone.

Lesser: “You have to set a high priority on society, the climate, your customers, your employees. Now you’re managing trade-offs across multiple stakeholders, often in ways that are hard to read, often with intense scrutiny around what you say and do.” .  

  • Because you are weaker, and others are stronger, collaboration is key. Leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that leaders can no longer go it alone.

                    Lesser: “More than ever before you have to be…amazing at teaming. It doesn’t mean you don’t lead, but you have to lead in a way that you expect to be challenged…. I always had a mind-set that we were going to talk things through…. I would often carry those discussions a bit longer than some people felt was necessary but made it clear that we were ready to really engage people – that I wasn’t coming in with the answer.”

  • It’s rough out there. Think VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. They are as real as is the coarsened public discourse with which anyone in public life must learn to put up.

                       Lesser:  CEOs are “dealing with things that together have made it a much harder job than it was … There’s a level of unpredictability politically…[and technologically]….

During the nine years that Lesser was at the helm at BCG it thrived. The firm more than doubled its size and it tripled its revenue. Seems clear he did something right as CEO. Seems equally clear he did something right as advisor to other CEOs. Maybe then, just maybe, he has something to say about leadership to which attention should be paid.  

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