A few years ago, in a research project underwritten by the CEOs of some of the largest, most powerful companies in the United States, professors at a prestigious business school were charged with the task of designing the corporation of the future. The professors worked on the project long and hard, drawing organizational charts to depict how the next-generation company would look. There was one problem: None of the schemes had a role for a CEO. The corporation of the future, it appeared, didn't need an old-fashioned CEO stationed at the top. And that, of course, made it impossible for the professors to report their findings to the project's sponsors.
In this issue's provocative cover package, we've more or less arrived at the same conclusion. The old-economy CEO model simply doesn't fit the demands of the new-economy company. Nor does it describe the actual work of today's CEO. But just as interesting, there is much work for the CEO to do. In a time of volatility, uncertainty, and confusion, the need for a CEO has gone up, not down. It turns out that what is obsolete is the job description, not the job title.
The old job description made the CEO a tough-as-nails authoritarian. Earning the title of "one of America's 10 toughest bosses" was an unambiguous honor. The single most important person in the company was the man (almost always) at the top: He set the strategy and dictated the direction.
Today, that job description has been redrafted. Toughness, rigor, and drive are still important; results count more than ever. But these days, it's just as important for CEOs to appreciate the links between talent, culture, and performance. More than simply giving orders, CEOs today find themselves giving permission — allowing the smart, motivated, and innovative people who work for them to take calculated risks in order to create the future.
Perhaps more than anything, the CEO of today is a teacher, working tirelessly to grow the skills and aptitudes of the company's best contributors. The job of the CEO is simply to create more CEOs, since CEOs who get it seek to populate the company with people who also get it.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.