Is your CEO a spy? Are you sure?

23rd April 2014
Let’s be clear. This is not about being an Edward Snowden in a Wikileaks style whistleblowing operation.

I’m talking about how some aspects of the CEO mindset and motivation compare with those of the spy, and some of the themes they share.

Let’s start with motivation. Former spy and author John le Carré says that ‘You can spy out of love, out of hatred, out of patriotism, out of disappointment, for fun, because life is tedious, or because you want to feel superior to other people.’ (1) As a CEO, how many of those boxes could you tick when it comes to your own motivation?

When it comes to mindset, CEOs and spies have a number of issues in common. How many of them apply to you?

1. There is no hiding place. As CEO it’s always your neck on the block. You have to deal with the consequences when things go wrong, and you have to handle extreme pressure. This requires high levels of personal resilience.

2. It’s lonely. Being a CEO is the toughest job in the business. You can’t truly confide in anyone at work, and you can’t share your problems at home either. As le Carré puts it; ‘You have to have the moral strength to be completely self-sufficient, like a monk. You cannot indulge your weaknesses or make compromises concerning your calling.’ (2)

3. You are ‘always on’. You need to be the supreme diplomat, never showing fear, and being comfortable in new and difficult situations. You are also being asked perpetually to exercise flawless judgement with imperfect information. That means constantly being able to take a step back from the situation to consider your options. This is how le Carré describes spies (and writers); ’They are a part of society, but separate from it … They have to have the trust of their environment, but at the same time keep at a distance from it‘. (3)

4. You have to make tough decisions. The truth is out there … somewhere. You always have to interrogate several people to find out what really happened when things don’t go according to plan. You can’t fully rely on anyone to have your back when things go wrong. And you sometimes have to let good people go, because regardless of what you want it’s what the business needs.

5. You are an agent. You are acting on your environment, not observing it, and you have to make things happen while under the microscopic gaze of your stakeholders, even when the plan has failed, and whether or not people like it. This takes a certain ruthlessness; le Carré again; ‘a spy must hunt while he is hunted.’ (4)

CEOs and spies pay a heavy price. As Joel Bakan writes in The Corporation, due to the ‘dual moral lives’ of business people – being intensely competitive at work, yet going home to a warm and loving home environment – they become mildly schizophrenic. That may sound extreme, but their only alternative is far worse; becoming a psychopath. (5)

Undercutting all of this is an irrational and largely unspoken fear shared by many successful CEOs. It’s the fear of being found out, of not being good enough, of even being laughably incompetent; or of being uncovered as a fake, a fraud, an imposter: Which is also the spy’s biggest fear.

What can you do about it? My advice to CEOs is to take a leaf out of the spy’s book and get a ‘handler’; you might call them a coach, wise counsel, non-exec, friend, therapist or confidante. Find someone who understands you, who isn’t too close to you, who you can trust and who most of all won’t judge you. Having your own George Smiley will help you become the best you can be, which is ultimately all anyone can ask of you.

  1. Conversations with John le Carré, Bruccoli & Baughman (Eds), (2004), p115. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MI.
  2. ibid, p114
  3. ibid, p113
  4. A Murder of Quality, John le Carré, Penguin Classics Edition (2011), P88. Penguin Group, London.
  5. The Corporation, Joel Bakan, (2004), P56. Constable & Robinson, London.


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