The Rogue CEO
December 31, 2015 Thomas McLaughlin
We begin with the type of dilemma found mostly, but infrequently, in moderate to very large nonprofits. It relies on a complicated mixture of personalities and the unspoken norm that a CEO gets some latitude for personal behavior, even if it makes others uncomfortable. This situation can be so painful that it chases out good managers and discourages competent outsiders from taking their place.
At the heart of the dilemma is a CEO who can best be described simply as a rogue.
The rogue CEO creates what has to be one of the most difficult situations in a nonprofit. This is because the rogue is often fairly skilled at the basics of the position, making just the right calls at the right time and building a credible entity over the years. The trade-off can be senior staff members who are fundamentally unsatisfied with their work experience.
For some reason, rogue CEOs tend to gravitate to larger organizations. This might happen because the rogue seems to feed on robust social connections while denying them to others. The rogue is also often very talented in the basics of management, which is probably how they get and keep their jobs.
What is a rogue CEO?
A rogue CEO is recognizable by many aspects of his personality. (Yes, rogues are usually male.) The key is that the rogue CEO’s behavior is rooted in and nourished by tacit impunity, which is usually the major complicating factor.
Sometimes the board of directors is complicit because it regards him as a “take charge kinda guy.” This background conflict is rooted in a set of assumptions about nonprofits shared by most of the board members.
The general assessment of the rogue’s board is probably that, for all his faults, the CEO isn’t like the rest of his squishy soft nonprofit peers who don’t work in the “Real Business World.”
This unspoken and never-discussed assumption about nonprofit managers on the part of board members is a far more common characteristic than rogue CEOs. But in this case, it can carve a deep fault line between board and staff even before the rogue gets hired.
Board members who thrive in business environments characterized by explicit conflicts tend to regard nonprofit culture as an anomaly. Some senior managers might learn how to tolerate this conflict primarily as a trade-off for donations and connections that the board members can bring.
The rogue CEO’s idea of leadership is usually to “get out in front” of everyone else. This is because the rogue sees the role in solitary terms, doing it in his own way rather than building connections, trust, and engagement at every level of the organization. It is one of the reasons why rogue CEOs are not well-respected internally, even if they accomplish a lot (which is not typical). This impulse to be a solitary leader — an oxymoron if ever there was one — reflects a model of leadership that most people would not recognize. At his worst, the rogue CEO is a solitary leader who cannot connect with his own staff.
Rogues tend not to have a plan, even at the most elementary level. This is probably because of the solitary nature of the leader’s personal style, especially the inability to connect on any level with subordinates. Implicit in most of the above descriptions is that the rogue executive is not a true leader — but thinks he is leading.
What to do
Because a rogue CEO’s behavior is so unpredictable, a straightforward conversation is likely to prove unhelpful and possibly unwise for the manager or managers who attempt the chat. It would be nice to be able to involve the board in conversations about the rogue’s behavior. That likely would not turn out well, either.
Try to engage the manager he trusts the most. This could work if the manager is not only aware of his boss’ behavior, but also willing to try to do something about it. The downside is that the manager has to be trustworthy and sympathetic to both sides.
In most instances the rogue is not disciplined, so everyone else has to be. Dealing with such a potentially volatile situation requires unusual discipline on everyone else’s part. Managers have to be able to resist snide comments and eye rolling, for example. The whole team of senior managers has to agree to focus only on external issues so as to use their own unity to ensure the rogue stays even-keeled.
Even tone-deaf rogues appreciate the importance of having board members on their side. Orchestrating the rogue’s work with board members requires several things: A well-chosen objective; a true basis for support among board members; a carefully designed plan; and, a fair amount of time.
Even rogues have strengths, which is the source of another constructive coping strategy. There has to be a tacit understanding among the management team to keep feeding the rogue problems and challenges that he legitimately has a good chance of solving. This has the added advantage of taking things off the fix-it list without spending senior management time and energy.
As a variation on the discipline theme, the senior managers might be able to create a high level of unity and strength among themselves. This might not be easy in view of the jockeying that often occurs among the top level of executives. But the rogue’s behavior can ironically unify what otherwise might be a fractious group.
Sunlight can be another approach, within limits. A mature, creative manager might be able to earn the rogue’s trust to the extent that the manager can call out the rogue in gentle, unfailingly humorous terms (wink wink) while retaining the trust of his colleagues. This approach requires an extremely rare combination of factors that can’t be forced. The person at the center of it has to be unfailingly funny, empathic and very insightful.
It could sound strange, but tolerance can be the best approach to the rogue CEO, presuming that he otherwise is an effective manager. The rogue’s positive traits have to be obvious to all and so clearly effective that his peers are willing to make the trade-off.
The rogue CEO is an unusual creature, especially in the 21st century’s interconnected nonprofit world. Co-workers have to accept behavior that often trades off personal comfort for institutional effectiveness. It’s often the dilemma of an effective rogue. NPT
Tom McLaughlin is the founder of the nonprofit-oriented consulting firm McLaughlin & Associates and the author of Nonprofit Strategic Positioning, published by Wiley. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org