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February 03, 2010

The Case for the Dumb CEO

Blog cartoon 2-3-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If your CEO could be attired the way you envision him when you're being honest with yourself, what would he be wearing?  Would it be the cap and gown of a person graduating from a fancy college with honors? Would it be a court jester's costume (smart but likes to slack off), or a dunce's cap atop a high chair in the corner of the room (not smart; got there due to interpersonal or familial connections; and not really that bright)?

Everyone assumes a successfully tested corporate leader has to be smart, or at least business savvy, but I'm not sure that's necessary. I wonder if maybe ignorance isn't bliss when you're a CEO.

Namely, I'm thinking about how the best person to write a manual on how to do something is somebody who doesn't know anything about it.  When selling products or services, maybe you do better making executive decisions if you know as little as your customers. Plus, isn't it social ability more than business acumen that got many CEOs their jobs, and enables them to seal deals with business partners?  To make the case on behalf of dumb CEOs, I have to note how helpful it is not to know much (won't alienate or intimate others who prefer being around dumb people) when doing business. First off, people are much less suspicious of you when you (honestly) know nothing, and second, an ignorant person likely will ask much better questions when
formulating a deal than an insider who takes it for granted he's aware of all the risks his company may encounter.

Of course the ignorant and none-too-bright also are great because they don't over-analyze things. A lot of business problems, I bet, come from missing the obvious (the place where, quite conveniently, the dumb mind lives) and making the simple unnecessarily complicated. Let's say you have a product customers don't like. A smart CEO may decide to put together focus groups and deeply study why the product isn't doing well. They may even consult with engineers and scientists on how to make it better. The dumb CEO wouldn't understand or have patience for any of that anyway (heaven knows he doesn't have the patience or depth to read anything longer than a one-page corporate memo about himself). So, what does he do?  He decides to scrap it and start over. You may say that isn't smart given the money the company has already sunk into it, but he isn't wasting time troubling himself over the "why"; he's taking action. I hate to show my personality preferences (you
can guess what I am), but in my experience, action-oriented people aren't always the most intellectual or interesting to talk to, but often they're the ones that get the job done. Not perfect, but good enough to scrape by.

Then you have to remember that people who aren't the brightest tend to be less plagued by mental illness and sadness than the smart ones. I have a feeling (based on some of my corporate experiences in the past) that there
are a lot of diabolical CEOs. "Diabolical" because they think of business as a chess game in which the figures on the board are their employees, and if those employees get shunted off the board, so be it. The dumb CEO wouldn't understand how to play chess, or have the patience for it. So, less of a chance unwitting employees will be used as long-suffering pawns. Also, "diabolical" because I think many of them may suffer from forms of mental illness that make them slightly obsessive compulsive and paranoid. I have no clinical evidence on that, but just a guess.

Plus, I like being around dumb people. They're a lot more relaxing. I think I like the vision of a dumb CEO strolling the cubicle aisles, nodding and smiling at everyone as guilelessly as a child, while distributing ice cream or Hershey bars to the suffering. I can't imagine a smart CEO feeling as psychologically free to do anything like that. There probably are a few exceptions here and there, but the smart ones probably would either shuffle down the cubicle rows with their hands jammed in their pockets, offering a stiff grimace or "firm" handshake, or maybe they would walk extra fast past the worker bees, with legs resembling scissors, barely making eye contact, eager to flee the scene of the crime.

The thing about the dumb executive is he isn¹t reflective enough to feel discomfort about the people he's (unfairly) doing financially much better than, and whom he may have to soon layoff. When you don't notice anything, you're able to interact more freely. When it comes to future tests for this CEO, he's calm and collected because he doesn't understand the ramifications of what lies ahead if he botches it (some smart ones, unfortunately, also are unfazed because though they see the ramifications they're wealthy and
insulated enough not to be affected by plans gone awry). There's nothing worse than a person wracked by neuroses in the face of a crisis. I come from a neuroses-full family, and have more than a few myself, so I know how that can be. The dumb aren't famous for having neuroses. Have you ever know a dumbbell with a hearty collection of neuroses?

But the best part of having a dumb CEO is communications. Now, while you may assume communications would suffer from the mouth and pen of a dope, but that's not so. It's like being back in kindergarten, and having a teacher talk to you as if every sentence were an enigma unto itself—everything is clearly, and all-too-concretely outlined. How many times have you heard a smart executive give a speech full of analogies and
vague language no one understands, or which thoroughly fails to resonate?

I definitely think the dumb are better in the c-suite. They say this year will be another doozey in the realm of CEO challenge, and I fear what an intelligent executive will do with another hefty set of problems. What
further Cubicle Land discomfort and horrors will the complex mind inflict? What if the man or gal dope at the top only came up with childish solutions to employee engagement like, say, Fudgsicle Fridays? You'd be surprised how many of your best employees and customers will come out to play.

How will your CEO meet the next round of challenges for your company? Is he over-thinking the solutions?


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Brilliant observations. I have lost count of how many CEOs I have seen in my days and they always seem to fall into the category of "highly educated and highly intelligent" individuals. What I would not give to work with a CEO that went to work straight out of high school at the bottom rung and worked his way up. I'll take the dumb CEO over the "smart" CEO every day. Can I disown my degrees?!?!?


Write-ups like this one solidify those in the business acumen training industry like Acumen Learning and Paradigm Learning. Whether acumen learning becomes common nomenclature is up for debate, but I suppose the more the term is used like it is here, the more credible the term becomes in professional circles. From Wikipedia: "The perception of business acumen as a valuable and necessary quality for high-level corporate leaders has occurred within a short period of time… some have classified business acumen as simply a buzzword." This blog is helping to make business acumen mainstream and less of a gimmick.

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