The second and far easier way is to start your own business and name yourself CEO.
Of course, climbing the corporate takes years of hard work, as well as the support and validation from others both inside and outside of an organization.
It’s a vetting process unlike any other, and more often than not the people who ascend to the top position at a company are seasoned, experienced individuals.
Crowning yourself CEO of your own enterprise, on the other hand, is easy. I should know because that’s exactly what I did when I started BodeTree at the age of 26. My business card read “CEO,” but did I have any real leadership skills? Of course not. It took me over seven years of hard work and innumerable mistakes to even begin to earn the title.
While I still have a long way to go on my personal leadership journey, I feel I’ve finally gained the wisdom to spot the difference between a real leader, and a self-appointed CEO in name only.
You find success by making others successful
Fake CEOs worry about themselves and their personal success. Real CEOs, on the other hand, define success as the ability to make others successful.
Steve Jobs once famously remarked that “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Of course, this is easier said than done. Real CEOs have the ability to help the smart people they hire to get out of their own way and navigate challenges so that they have the chance to share their brilliance.
Great leaders can nurture greatness in others and help them achieve their “highest and best use.” When you find yourself spending your time worrying about how to bring out greatness in your team, you’ve taken the first step towards becoming a real CEO.
My team members were a means to an end, supporting this execution rather than driving it. This approach was, of course, as short-sighted as it was difficult to scale.
Anyone can come up with an idea and then execute on it. Only a real leader, however, can develop a strategy and then inspire others to take it up and run with it.
I remember the first time I took this vital step in my leadership journey. In the past, I had personally directed the development of product features. My development team would implement, but I was the one coming up with the ideas.
This changed when I finally brought on a true Chief Technology Officer and empowered him to take ownership of the product. Rather than dictate features and requirements, I spent my time articulating and defining the spirit of what we needed to accomplish. My CTO, then, was able to take that vision, adjust it as necessary, and drive it towards execution.
The ability to inspire others to take action and ownership is rare, but it’s necessary if you hope to become a true CEO.
You take all the blame and none of the credit
I used to be obsessed with getting credit for my company’s successes. Looking back, I realize that my desire to grab the spotlight was a function of my insecurity.
I knew I wasn’t a true CEO, and therefore needed to take every opportunity possible to prove myself to the world. At the same time, I shifted blame to others when things went poorly.
Now, I see that real CEOs give credit to the members of their team, even when they’ve played a significant role in the success of the organization. Similarly, when things go bad, they’re the first to take the blame.
As I mentioned earlier, the CEO’s job is to coax greatness out of their team members. Their success is a function of the success of their people. When something goes poorly inside of an organization, it represents a failure on behalf of the leader.
I think the real turning point in any leader’s life is when he or she realizes that it’s not about them. CEOs aren’t dictators, fearlessly plotting a path forward for their team. They’re more like gardeners.
Their job is to plan for, nurture, and protect the people in their charge so that they can grow and be productive. So remember, just because your business card reads “CEO,” it doesn’t mean you’re a real leader. That takes time, dedication, and an unyielding commitment to the success of others.