Are You a Peacetime CEO or a Wartime CEO?

peacetime vs wartime

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By my reckoning, Ben Horowitz is the most thought-provoking blogger on leadership and strategy today. He’s also a lot more than a blogger. As one of the two name partners at Andreessen Horowitz, he is one of the most influential venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. As the cofounder and CEO of Opsware, a software company that was sold to Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion, he built a track record as a hands-on executive. And as one of the earliest product managers at Netscape, he was present at the creation of the dotcom boom.

No wonder that when Ben Horowitz writes what he thinks — about leadership, strategy, or innovation — people like me pay attention. Well, 10 days or so ago, he wrote something that struck me as particularly insightful.

The occasion was the high-profile emergence of Larry Page as CEO of Google, as the company’s cofounder replaced its longtime professional CEO, Eric Schmidt. Most of the media coverage of the transition, Ben argued, missed the most important point. The rise of Page, he went on, marked a huge change for Google as a company and the high-tech field as an industry. Eric Schmidt was the perfect Peacetime CEO — a “gregarious and articulate” leader who was adept at “expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths.” Larry Page’s job is to be a Wartime CEO — a leader whose job is “fending off an imminent existential threat” by demanding “strict adherence and alignment to the [company’s] mission.”

Ben’s language, of course, is borrowed directly from The Godfather, and the difficult-but necessary decision by Michael Corleone to dismiss his beloved Tom Hagen as consigliere. “Mike, why am I out?” the mystified Hagen asks. “You’re not a wartime consigliere,” Michael responds.

What a brilliant distinction — for criminals and for companies! I’ve met so many leaders over the years — whether they are CEOs, VPs, or heads of project teams — who are cast brilliantly for one kind of business environment but miscast for a different environment. According to Ben, Peacetime CEO “focuses on the big picture and empowers her people to make detailed decisions.” Wartime CEO “cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interfered with the prime directive.” Peacetime CEO “knows what to do with a big advantage.” Wartime CEO “is paranoid.” Peacetime CEO “works to minimize conflict.” Wartime CEO “heightens the contradictions.”

As I read Ben’s post, I couldn’t help but think back to the rise of Fast Company, and the role that Alan Webber and I played as cofounders. We were both Peacetime CEOs — we loved building something new, defining the organization’s culture, conducting ourselves responsibly in a hyper-growth environment, embracing a set of values that defined how we created economic value.

For us, peacetime lasted six years — until the economic bubble popped, the advertising market collapsed, and a world of opportunity became a world of hurt. We stayed on as leaders, but our roles felt awkward, draining, decidedly unfun. A big part of this, of course, involved what was happening around us — booms are better than busts.

But now I recognize, thanks to Ben’s distinction, that maybe a bigger part was who we were as people. We weren’t Wartime CEOs. We were better at building than retrenching, better at expanding the vision than hunkering down, better at getting people fired up than keeping them focused.

For his part, as Ben looks over his tenure at Opsware, he considers himself a better Wartime CEO than Peacetime CEO. As he looks over the current struggles at Cisco, he wonders if CEO John Chambers isn’t decisively better as a Peacetime CEO than a Wartime CEO. And he nominates the legendary Andy Grove, the leader who made some of toughest decisions in the history of Intel, as the ultimate Wartime CEO.

Implicit in Ben’s analysis is the idea it’s harder to be a Wartime CEO than a Peacetime CEO. The Peacetime CEO “sets big, hairy, audacious goals,” he says. The Wartime CEO “is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.”

Of that I’m not so sure. I’ve met plenty of business leaders with sharp minds, nerves of steel, and the bloodless willingness to do what it takes to survive in high-stress environments. I’ve met decidedly fewer leaders with open minds, big hearts, and a set of personal values that draw out the best in colleagues and business partners. I for one think it’s often easier to win the war than to win the peace.

But I leave that question to all of you. Read Ben’s post, then think about yourself and the leaders you’ve encountered over the years. What does it take to be a peacetime leader? A wartime leader? Which is tougher? And can the same person be effective in both roles?

This article is published at HBR.org by Bill Taylor

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