The CEO as False Messiah

Why is the leadership of health care organizations so bad?  An important explanation of one part of the puzzle appears on InformationWeek's Brainyard blog written by Venkatesh Rao. 

The Visionary, Charismatic, or Messianic Leader

In "The Fall of the Messiah Leader," Rao described the rise of the concept of "visionary" leadership:
we'll look at the rise in the 1980s and impending fall of the idea of 'Leadership' as a pop business construct. The role of visionary leader emerged to make up for the apparent failure of the manager mind, but it evolved into something very different, illustrated in the picture below: a role dedicated mainly to creating and maintaining an illusion of control in the markets interspersed with occasional Big Bold crisis management moves that generally fail.

Rao suggested that the first example of the messianic organizational leader was former General Electric CEO Jack Welch:
Welch was the first modern example of 'charismatic leadership,' and his was the first widely recognized business name since the robber barons. I challenge you to name, off the top of your head, one "celebrity" business name between Rockefeller and Welch that the average man on the street would have recognized.

Rao described the charismatic, or visionary leader in truly messianic terms:
one savant-like figure can intuitively read market conditions, spot brilliant strategic opportunities, create clarity of purpose in pursuit of that opportunity, and steer by an innate sense of True North, without a compass.

Oh yeah, and while performing this miracle routinely, the leader also models virtues and values that would put saints to shame. This idealized leader sparks a pursuit of corporate greatness with a brilliant strategic insight every few years, and he ensures that the pursuit is conducted in accordance with values so noble you feel like writing epic poems in his honor.

These charismatic figures are supposed to be capable of intuitively cutting through complexity and producing visionary decisions that make the managers' jobs tractable again.

In case this description of supposedly messianic leaders of recent years sounds far-fetched, recall the example of the failed, then eventually jailed CEO of what was once the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation (AHERF), one of the largest vertically integrated health care systems of the 1990s. (Currently, we call such organizations accountable care organizations, or ACOs.) Abdelhak was described in an American College of Physicians publication as a "visionary." (See the summary beginning on p 5 here.) Abdelhak had previously been called a "visionary" or a "genius" in the media. [Gaul GM. Creator of a cross-state health system despite personal and financial questions, Sherif Abdelhak has boldly expanded from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 1991. P. D1. Gaul GM. The new prescription for health care: Hahnemann’s merger dwarfs - and frightens - many local rivals. Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1993. P. E1.]  For more recent examples of how health care leaders may be described in messianic terms, look herehere, and here.

The False Messiahs

Just as Abdelhak proved to be not a messiah, but a criminal, most messianic leaders are anything but. As Rao put it,
Do these Messiahs actually do the job required of them--relieve beleaguered mere-mortal managers and steer the company toward greatness? Nine out of 10 times, they do nothing of the sort. What they do is convince people that they're in control.

His main point is that the "messiahs" are just people playing at that role, supported by public relations, if not propaganda and disinformation:
Heroic, charismatic leadership in the context of large public companies is mostly a myth. What makes it a myth isn't that such figures don't exist (there have been a handful, such as Welch himself, Jobs, and Bezos), but the idea that the phenomenon can be studied in general terms, codified, and turned into a teachable skill.

True leaders are born, not manufactured. And they're quite rare. What the leadership cottage industry can manufacture are false leaders: People who can act like leaders. That theater has two audiences: the media and Wall Street.

The psychological allure of 'leadership' as a concept is almost entirely due to its profitability as a business-writing cottage industry, which in turn is based almost entirely on appealing to the vanities of wannabe-Messiahs. On the other side, there's an entire shadow world devoted to manufacturing perceptions of Messianic capabilities, by 'proving' claims to charismatic leadership using hagiographic narratives.

Rao claimed that the rise of such falsely messianic leadership was due to the ability of such leaders to bewitch investors:
The de facto job of a leader is to manage perceptions on Wall Street and thereby manage the stock price. Projecting an image of charismatic leadership is the easiest way to do that. Managers fight fires out of sight, creating a perception of corporate normalcy and control, and the Glorious Leader uses that blank canvas of apparent normalcy to spin tales that mesmerize Wall Street.

Who Else Benefits

Rao wrote mainly in the context of understanding the stresses and challenges of managers (who he sees as distinct from leaders in the context above). Thus he may not have written about other factors in the etiology of falsely messianic leaders.

I hypothesize that such leaders are not only good at bewitching investors, but bewitching other constituencies and stakeholders. Most health care organization now must deal with government agencies. Non-profit health organizations must deal with groups that are interested in their ostensibly charitable missions. Having a apparently messianic leader makes it possible to bewitch these groups.

Furthermore, I hypothesize that falsely messianic leaders greatly benefit two groups within their organizations. The first is obviously their apostles, often the top layers of organizational executives just below the CEO. Such positions are now almost as personally remunerative as are CEO positions. The second is obviously the spin-doctors, that is mainly the public relations and sometimes the marketing people who help produce the theatre that creates the perception of messianic qualities.

The Final Common Pathway

Rao suggests that falsely messianic leaders are likely to lead their organizations to a bad end, even if they themselves may escape the consequences:
Charismatic theater-leadership is about to die a messy death, like Qadaffi, because the sheer amount of chaos converging in a bottom-up torrent to the CEO's office will become unmanageable very soon. The theater will become increasingly hard to sustain.

Leaders fail when their managers fail to keep up with the fire-fighting. Once the fires become visible externally, the apparent normalcy necessary for the leader to manage perceptions is gone.

At this point, the leader is an impossible situation, but the theater must continue. And so we're treated to the grand finale of the tenure of a CEO: the Big Bold Move, the Bet The Company moment.

The Big Bold Move is usually a Big Dumb Move--deciding to go after large new markets, taking on bold new product initiatives costing hundreds of millions of dollars, making major acquisitions. It's a high-stakes game with a billion-dollar ante.

And usually these moves fail because charismatic leaders are forced to make them at terrible times, with bad data, when growth has stagnated or is plummeting, and there's a need for an 11th hour business model shift to replace hundreds of millions of dollars of collapsing revenue streams. A case of too much, too late.

The leaders who fail are sacked, land safely with golden parachutes, and proceed to loudly blame 'culture' (read: 'incompetent middle management') for the failure.

Rao is writing for a general business audience. The outcomes of such failures when the falsely messianic leader is in charge of a health care organization can obviously be even worse, leading to rising health care costs, declining access and quality, and threats to patients' and the public's health.


We have seen many health care leaders praised for their brilliance and paid royally despite leadership resulting in financial distress, threats to the organizations' health care missions, poor patient care, unethical behavior, or even crime. (The most recent example as of the time this was written was here. For other examples look here.)   Yet health care CEOs are just people, sometimes smart, but almost never brilliant.  Promoting them as messianic to bewitch key constituencies, justify the remuneration of other top managers, and the hiring of more public relations flacks is likely to lead to the sort of organizational disasters and system-wide dysfunction we discuss on Health Care Renewal.  The rise of the falsely messianic leader may allow the entry of the most dangerous false messiahs, the psychopathic ones.  (We discussed the likelihood that some health care leaders are actually psychopaths here.)

Rao's theory of falsely messianic leadership (and related, and also religiously allusional theories of the "divine rights of CEOs," look here and here), suggest that the better paid the CEO, and the more expansive the descriptions of the CEOs talents, the more skeptical we ought to be. 

In the secular occupation of health care, we ought not to yearn for messiahs, but hope for reasonable leadership that draws on the collective knowledge and values of health care professionals rather than dubious "visions," and that show accountability, integrity, transparency, honesty, and ethics.