Will CEO Soon Come to Mean Something Really Bad?

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

THE SIMPLE LETTERS CEO once said it all. They meant you were top of the greasy pole and mainly there to deliver profits for shareholders.

Nowadays though, C-E-O  means playing many roles, wearing multiple hats and delivering varied results. For example, most senior leaders of large corporations readily talk about the importance of sustainability, and what their company is doing in this area. In all but name the CEO is now “Chief Environmental Officer”

Equally, today’s most senior leaders set the ethical tone governing their whole enterprise. So the CEO could easily be seen as the “Chief Ethics Officer”.

ceoOr, as one commentator at the recent Davos conference put it, the three letters could yet mean “Chief Emotional Officer”. In that role “you’re expected to be highly approachable, engaged, and caring.” Without these, profits alone won’t be enough to hold onto that hefty salary.[1]

All of which makes being CEO of a high tech company more than just Chief Expansion Officer. You now need to be deeply concerned with reputation and doing something worthwhile in society or risk the latter turning against you.

For instance, Uber’s aggressive CEO rolled up at the recent Munich technology conference sounding far more emollient, and rather different from a few months ago. Now he’s talking not about destroying old style, inefficient taxi services—which is still his intention, but about co-operation and not confrontation.” [2].

This shift has been forced on him by a growing resistance to his company and what it stands for, despite its multi million dollar backing and technical superiority. One more step in his newly-minted persona and he’ll be claiming to be a highly ethical leader, bent on transforming society for the better.

Technology companies like UBER can no longer take for granted that what they’re doing will automatically be received as beneficial. Difficult questions are arising about the value of disruptive technology and what it does to jobs, people’s lives and society in general.

Although the level of trust in technology has tended to be extremely high, we’re seeing signs this is starting to slip. Worse may be yet to come, as technology comes down from its pedestal and takes it rightful place amongst other potentially damaging or at least risky forces in society such as climate change, genome testing, intrusive surveillance, and inequality.  [3]

For example, leading scientist Stephen Hawking recently went on record to warn of the dangers to humankind’s existence from developments in artificial intelligence. His public doubts are shared in many quarters, even if the prospect of a genuine threat remains somewhat distant. [4]

His concerns though, directly raise an important ethical challenge for high tech leaders in charge of companies involved in this work. Is what they are doing right, could it be morally wrong and ultimately disastrous for humanity?

This is hardly different, except in scale, from that of a CEO in charge of a company building a massive damn project that threatens many acres of prime agricultural land and the homes of thousands of residents. For example, the Mapuche dam in Chile encountered huge resistance, to its damaging environmental impact, though to little effect—the project still went ahead.

Despite considerable protest, Endesa, the largest Spanish private company in Chile, built a 155 meter-high dam with a 3,400 hectare reservoir. It reportedly displaced 700 Pehuenche Indians and flooded over 70 km of the river valley, inundating the richly diverse forest and its wildlife. [5]

Environmental and Indigenous rights groups opposed the project, not just because of the wide- scale destruction. But also because projections of Chile’s future energy requirements suggested the power it produces won’t even be needed.

Doubtless Endesa’s CEO would hate to see this issue framed as an ethical leadership one. Yet it was clearly just that. What’s good for Endesa may be entirely bad for a whole lot of other people and that is what ethical leadership often involves.

Bankers have been shocked at how their once cosy world has changed, making them almost social outcasts as their reputation has taken a hammering. Equally CEOs of technology companies may be heading for a similar nasty surprise, as concepts such as trust, authenticity, social licence, integrity, sustainability, privacy  and ethical reputation start to take their toll.

What does it mean for instance to be an ethical leader of an advanced technology company in the 21st Century, and are ethics and the planned disruption of whole industries at all compatible?

Laws and regulations are meant to help ethical leaders find their way through such difficult terrain but these clearly can’t keep pace with the technology. [6]

Consequently CEOs may be no better than the rest of us in making ethical sense of the kind of decisions that have potentially lethal consequences. For example when the first drone carrying a parcel for Amazon kills someone, or a self- drive car goes amok, will the CEO of that company be publicly assailed for running an unethical enterprise?

Until now being a CEO has generally been seen as a “good thing” just as being a banker was once regarded as highly responsible and respectable.

Could all that be about to change?


  1. E. Young, What makes a good business leader? BBC News, 2 January 2015
  2. J.Gapper, Technology has to create more than disruption, FT 22nd January 2015
  3. G.Hunt, Tech giants warned of bank-style collapse in trust, FT, 22nd January 2015
  4. R. Cellan-Jones, Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind, BBC 2 December 2014
  5. ICE Case Studies, The Bio-Bio River Case, Chile
  6. A. Howard Disruptive technologies pose difficult ethical questions for society April 22, 2014,


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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