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Strategic relevance of a CEO’s inner circle

  Nov 13, 2015

By Fredrick Ogola

When a CEO fails, it is said that he is a capable and great leader, only that those around him have let him down. The same can be said of your pastor, your bishop, your department leader, and the list continues. In politics, when US President Barack Obama lost his first presidential debate to Mitt Romney, it was said that his close advisers misled him.

He changed tack in the second debate, won it and was sworn in. It is said that CORD leader Raila Odinga has never assumed power because of those around him. The claim continues that anyone who approaches his office with a great idea will be elbowed out by his inner-circle aides.

The same has been said concerning the leadership of this country. During Jomo Kenyatta’s reign, anything that went wrong with the presidency was blamed on those around him. The same has held true for Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki and now, Uhuru Kenyatta. Corruption and bad policies that date back to history are blamed on the kitchen cabinets of the successive presidents.

This prompts one to question the strategic relevance of a leader’s inner circle. Could there be a positive correlation between mediocrity and one’s closeness to the CEO?

Unfortunately, there is — and this is true for most organisations.

So, how do these perpetrators of mediocrity get to the top?

It is not too difficult. They achieve it through managing upwards — that is, kissing up, and kicking downwards. Some are inherited and, due to their institutional memory, wield so much power that the CEO operates at their mercy. In politics, their insights help the CEO get to the top.

Surviving mediocrity

But getting close to the top is not the hard part; staying there is. However, these people have mastered their game so well that any wave of change leaves their positions intact.

They master the art of managing upwards: they take any credit they can from those below them, and ensure the CEO knows and believes it was their effort

For instance the secretary of the CEO may know how to draft a letter, so he or she directs other staff to do the work, and then takes the credit. In marketing, the head may not know how to close a deal, even though it is closed through his or her office. The credit and benefit go to him or her, all the same.

How, then, do organizations survive with this level of mediocrity at the top?


Organisations can excel despite the behaviour of top management. As a CEO, you may have plenty of mediocre managers, but organisational performance is still great.

In fact, stakeholder feedback on your organisation may be so positive that you wonder how your organisation can be held in high regard, yet it seems to fall short in many areas.

A business can be kept afloat by the individual brilliance of a few employees who pull a surprise when the ship is about to sink. These are mostly junior staff who are client facing. Unfortunately, the credit for this tends to go to the senior management.

So if doing nothing is more rewarding, should junior employees follow their managers’ example?

Consider this. An eagle was sitting on a tree resting, doing nothing. A small rabbit saw the eagle and asked him, “Can I also sit like you and do nothing?” The eagle answered, “Sure, why not?”

So the rabbit sat on the ground below the eagle and rested. All of a sudden, a fox appeared, jumped on the rabbit and ate it. The lesson? To get away with sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very high up.

CEO, you can break the cycle of mediocrity among your top managers who do little. President Obama fixed it in a matter of days. Good luck.

The writer is senior lecturer, strategy and competitiveness, and academic director, MBA programs, at Strathmore Business School.

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