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'CEO' Reconsidered

One of the forces of our time is the democratization of leadership. This comes, ironically, at a moment of a certain infatuation with the title "CEO."

Chief executive officers can make a profound difference in a corporate culture's success. Andrew Grove, CEO of Intel Corporation, is one of the technology industry's most impressive performers. He writes in his new book, "Only the Paranoid Survive," about the value of quick response in recognizing the advent of "strategic inflection points" not only in the high-tech industry, but in all other businesses. Intel was slow to recognize it had become a mass marketing entity because of its heavily promoted "Intel Inside" campaign. This slowness cost it dearly when its new Pentium chip was discovered to have a flaw. The leader must recognize when the game changes in some fundamental way.

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Now, the term CEO can fairly be interpreted to embrace many other performance categories. In politics, one can say the president is CEO of the executive branch (not the chief budget, legislative, or judicial authority, however). A pastor may be the chief ecclesiastical officer of his congregation. An editor may be considered the chief editorial officer of a publication. Or a superintendent may be said to be the chief education officer of a school district, or a principal the CEO of a school.

The vote here for the most critical institutional leadership role of our time is that of a teacher, the chief educational officer of a classroom. And the most critical inflection point, the moment to make a lasting change in performance, would perhaps be the eighth or ninth grade, although any one or two years in high school are not too late.

I once asked the Harvard education scholar Burton White, whose specialty was pre-school competence in children, which of the 16 or so competencies he recorded (such as an ability to get adults to do things for you) could be identified as those one would need as an adult. He demurred at answering, because adult competencies are hard to define. It seems only reasonable, however, that educators would pursue development of gifts that had adult relevance.

We see UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright nominated as secretary of state, and retiring GOP Sen. William Cohen of Maine as secretary of defense. It is fair to ask what qualities qualify the one to become chief diplomatic officer and the other the chief defense department officer. If I were teaching a middle school civics class, I would ask the students to identify the skills, demeanor, and experience required of those leadership roles. The idea would be to start someplace in planting the idea that the student is already a CEO in training - CEO of an enterprise of one.

An enterprise of one admittedly reflects a radical democratization of leadership. But consider what is happening in corporate life, as organizations downsize and rehire workers as free agents, consultants, or temporary help. Colleges are seeking ways to limit tenure. The senior population is expanding without a corresponding extension of society-relevant activity. Individuals must cope alone.

The management concepts of value enhancement, return on equity, or recognition of major changepoints are going to have to be considered by individuals for their own household enterprises, as the public discussion turns to shifting Social Security to private equities investment.

Acquiring objectivity, surviving separation from the herd when the longing to belong is most acute, is a leadership discipline.

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The CEOs doing the most for our society today may well be the teachers who see in their classroom the chance to initiate lifelong self-leadership of citizens.

Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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