Who Got the Top Job, the Empty Desk or the Heavy Ego?

Insight #337

The rivals assumed that the CEO with the empty desk did no work. (Created with Microsoft Copilot)

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I once worked for a shipping line, one with proper ships, including container ships, bulk carriers and the two biggest ocean rescue tugs in the world. And one medium-sized passenger liner.

Oddly, the shipping line agreed to merge with another big company, one which owned hotels and gambling resorts. Apparently, having one passenger liner in your fleet of cargo ships and ocean tugs makes you a leisure company.

When conservative shipping meets liberal leisure, expect divergent leadership styles.

Their desks showed just how different. Heaps of reports, documents, and papers covered the shipping CEO’s desk. The leisure CEO’s desk was a display of bare, highly polished wood.

Employees of the shipping line believed that their man would become the CEO of the merged group. Because everybody assumed that the other CEO did no work, as shown by his empty desk.

They did not understand the meaning of the empty desk. Neither did the directors of the merged entity. (And if you thought it was empty because he was away sampling his company’s leisure offerings, then shame on you, too.)

The employees of the hotels and gambling conglomerate understood the meaning of the empty desk. Because they experienced its impact. The empty desk reflected their CEO’s unique leadership style. He traveled constantly to visit the chiefs of the different business units to ensure that they were performing as expected; he discussed their performance and results with them; and he reminded them he was there to help if they asked. But he made it clear he was ready to step in if he felt their performance was slipping.

Who got the top job at the merged entity? Not the CEO with the empty desk. Oh, the power of perceptions! So, who got the job? The CEO with the loaded desk, he who hated to delegate.

But that’s not where our cautionary tale ends. Because, within months of the celebrated merger, the newly anointed CEO was dead.

You would think that the combined board of directors would now appoint the other CEO to take over. But life is not that simple.

Another key difference between the two CEOs was the size of their egos. Both had strong egos, but they showed their egos very differently. The one CEO had his ego on constant display and used it to bolster his power. The other CEO restrained his ego, yet lost no power.

The one CEO wore a trademark frown as he looked down on his subordinates because he believed they were there to serve him. (It was common knowledge he expected any executive who traveled with him to carry his luggage.) The other CEO smiled often as a way of signaling support for his executives and their teams. (Maybe he smiled less when he needed to step in. But that did not happen very often.)

The one CEO used his power to empower others. The other CEO used others to empower himself. When he died unexpectedly, not one of his executives was ready to take over. (After all, his best executives never stayed long. In business jargon, they were already “out the door.”)

The new board of directors had no option. They gave the top job to a senior executive from the leisure company, one mentored and empowered by the CEO with the empty desk.

Why? Because the CEO with the empty desk, being one of the “best people,” was already “out the door.”

Welcome to my side of the nonsense divide.

(P.S. I worked for the CEO with the loaded desk. I stayed for only two years. Does that make me one of the “best people”?)

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