The CEO Sets the Tone

2/15/13

When I was studying for my doctoral comprehensive exams I remember reading a study that showed that throughout the organization (across hierarchical levels) the leader's style tends to be copied by his or her subordinates. Similarly, senior executives often note the importance of the CEO to setting the tone or culture of the Executive Leadership Team (ELT). In my most recent CHRO survey, I discovered that this is definitely true.

I aimed part of the survey at exploring some of the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) dynamics and the CEO's leadership of that team. There were two CEO leadership scales, one a measure of servant leadership and the other of ethical leadership. Servant leadership items included things such as "Spends the time to form quality relationships with ELT members," "Creates a sense of community among ELT members," "Makes the personal development of ELT members a priority," and "Puts others' best interests ahead of his/her own." Statements such as "Defines success not just by results, but also the way that they are achieved," "When making decisions, asks ‘What is the right thing to do?'" and "Sets an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics" comprised the Ethical leadership scale.

In addition, I asked CHROs to respond to a measure of the cohesiveness of the team with items such as "The ELT engages in very open communication," "The ELT members are very cooperative with one another," and "The ELT members put the team's interest above their own individual interests."

As you might suspect, it appears that the CEO has a large influence over the cohesiveness of the ELT. Servant leadership correlated .62 with cohesiveness, and ethical leadership correlated .57 with it. In other words, when CEOs model putting others interests above their own, they get ELTs who do likewise. So, if you have an ELT that doesn't function very well, the fault may lie, at least partly, with what they are learning from their boss.