The Dangers of the Rowboat CEO

The Dangers of the Rowboat CEO

Many CEOs of early-stage companies function as what I call Rowboat CEOs. They row hard while facing backward. And they don’t do a great job of looking over their shoulder at what’s ahead.

In some ways, the rowboat approach is necessary for the startup leader. When you’re getting a business off the ground, you have to supply a lot of elbow grease yourself. You must look at the here-and-now, the “what just happened?,” so you can iterate fast. After all, the distant future doesn’t matter too much if you’re not going to be around by next month.

But there’s a real problem when Rowboat CEOs transfer their approach to a company at scale. Once you’re past the startup phase (whether your startup has grown into a real organization or you’ve stepped into the CEO role at a bigger enterprise), furiously rowing toward glory while facing backward is a decidedly inappropriate approach. That’s because leadership at scale requires the CEO to step away from the oars, turn to face ahead, and pick up the binoculars.

One of the drums I beat is the idea that CEOs must continuously concern themselves with the future. They must resist the adrenaline rush of jumping into tactical firefights and instead work on the organization’s direction and future-readiness.

While the Rowboat CEO is micromanaging immediate problems, dwelling on past decisions, and holding on to responsibilities their team could perform competently, the Helmsman CEO concerns him- or herself with a very different set of responsibilities. This includes assessing the organization’s long-term strategic priorities, bridging the gap between current capabilities and those required to execute the strategy, and clearing their plate of everything but the core responsibilities of the chief executive role.

As we get started on a new year, try this litmus test as you plan your day. Ask yourself, Is this a rowboat task/meeting/issue or is it something worth of the helmsman? If it’s the former, how can you delegate it?

With this sorting mechanism in place, you free yourself to provide the value only a good CEO can: navigating the entire team toward the desired destination, full steam ahead.

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