When you’re the CEO of a large organization—or even a small one—your greatest responsibility is to recognize whether it requires a major change in direction. Indeed, no bold new course of action can be launched without your say-so. Yet your power and privilege leave you insulated—perhaps more than anyone else in the company—from information that might challenge your assumptions and allow you to perceive a looming threat or opportunity. Ironically, to do what your exalted position demands, you must in some way escape your exalted position.
Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, calls this dilemma his job’s “number one challenge.” As he explains, it takes two forms: “people telling you what they think you want to hear, and people being fearful to tell you things they believe you don’t want to hear.” Managers at all levels experience some form of this challenge, he points out, but “its grip is most intense in the top office.”