Can Leaders be Normal People?

This post was originally made on my blog at on February 12, 2011.  I moved it here, feeling like this was a more natural location.


In the novel I'm currently working on -- Heir Apparent -- I spend a considerable amount of time contemplating a variety of extreme leadership styles. The plot of the story, the killing of four local company CEOs by one of their own (the heir apparent -- hence the name), gives me the opportunity to compare and contrast those extremes. Bear in mind, these are all large organizations being portrayed in the novel -- a technology company, an bank, a manufacturing outfit, and a construction company.

The three of the four extremes are pretty well defined:

Killed first is what I call the screamer. This CEO aggressively challenges anything and everything, and goes into all kinds of near-crazy histrionics. She (yes, in this case I portrayed this leader as a woman) inspires an organization of other screamers, who try to out-challenge each other. The environment is aggressive, unpleasant, but also high energy.

Killed second is the politician. This CEO is nice on the outside, but cold as ice at the core. He creates an environment where he positions other people to take the fall for his own errors and shortcomings. He creates a lot of turnover in the organization, but because he's seen as kinder and gentler, he's able to continuously bring new, top talent into his firm. The new guys take the risks, and the fall if they fail. The politician is there to take the credit when the risks pay off.

Killed third is Mr. Indecisive, who can't seem to make a decision on his own, always delaying or deferring to committees of others. The employees of this company love their leader, even though he drives some of them crazy with his indecisiveness. He also has a bad habit of reconsidering all kinds of decisions, often well after the point where they should have been closed. This profile is giving me the most trouble because it appears to be the lack of some essential ingredient in the leader that makes it what it is.

The last murder victim is the micro-manager, who insists on being a part of every significant decision, and tends to drive off other independent thinking employees. He has surrounded himself by people who blindly support his decisions, and are satisfied to let their own decision-making abilities atrophy. While his firm is successful, his inability to really delegate makes him personally the limiting factor in the company's success.

Notice I said these were extreme personality types, but not unsuccessful. Each of these companies are being successful in their own way -- each growing, gaining influence and position in their markets, showing healthy profitability. In some cases they succeed because of the way the CEO drives the company, and in others (Mr. Indecisive) because the remaining managers have constructed systems to accommodate their leader's weaknesses.

I've personally observed all of these leadership types during my career, and some (but not all) of them to the extremes described in the novel. What I haven't experienced is a leader who is, well...a normal guy (or gal). I have a theory -- that a "normal" person lacks something which is necessary for a person to ascend to the top position. For lack of a better way to describe it, I'd call it drive, but its certainly more than the conventional definition of that wordIt's more of an uncontrollable burning need to reach the top. This drive needs to be present in abnormal amounts to allow someone to make it to the top of the ladder, and it drags along other abnormal behaviors as well (like political maneuvering, acting out aggressive roles, or feeling the need to decide everything themselves).

So my question is: does anyone out there know of a CEO who really is just a normal guy. I'm talking the CEO of a publically traded company with at least a thousand employees. And byknow, I mean being close enough that you actually can see what's going on behind the curtain, not just the outward veneer. If you know of one, I'd like to hear about it either with a comment or a private email (

I know of one of these, but that person came into the role in a very unusual way. I'm not sure one can actually climb the ladder to the top, and still remain normal in the conventional sense.