SEVEN | The Twenty-First-Century CEO

“CEOs have work of their own. It is work only CEOs can do, but also work which CEOs must do…Each knowledge worker must think and behave like a chief executive officer.”

In the last years of his life, Peter Drucker focused like a laser on what had increasingly fascinated him – the role of the CEO. As corporations grew more unwieldy, worldwide competition sharpened, and customers and shareholders alike became more litigious, Peter rightly saw CEOs as more important than ever. They had to provide leadership – strategic leadership, moral leadership – and balance. Peter believed that the CEO role was the next area of management research. Procter & Gamble’s CEO A.G. Lafley called it, “Peter’s unfinished chapter.”

Good or bad, the CEO sets the tone for an organization, its mission and culture, and its actions and results during his or her tenure if not thereafter as well. As a consultant and advisor, Peter worked with hundreds of CEOs and observed a remarkable diversity of leadership personalities in action, from Jack Welch at GE to Frances Hesselbein, head of the Girl Scouts of America; from President Eisenhower in 1950 to Mike Zafirovski, who ascended to the top spot of Nortel at the dawn of the twenty-first century – almost seven decades after Drucker first worked with Alfred Sloan at General Motors.

…The CEO has to live the purpose, the values, and the principles of the organization. For decades, Peter thought about how CEOs could be more. He mused about how they could change more than just corporations and foundations – how they could even shape the course of countries. And he worried about how they could harm all sorts of people if they were less than ethical. Once again, Peter offered us keen insight into the future. The reputation of CEOs has taken a pounding in recent years because of what I call the “Enron effect” (but one could also call the “WorldCom wake”). And so, as Peter predicted, the job of CEO has never been more important, or more controversial.