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I worked for two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior uniformed official in the Department of Defense. I was their Senate legislative liaison and was responsible for informing and advising them on all Senate matters involving the department.  

In their office, an executive assistant and executive secretary supported them. Both served as gatekeepers and trusted advisors. The executive secretary booked the chairman’s daily schedule in 15-minute increments, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of course, the National Security Advisor, cabinet members, and the president trumped all others seeking time with them. Their pace was remarkable, and the breadth and depth of information they consumed were unbelievable. Somehow, they managed to navigate through their daily responsibilities; however, both commented to me on several occasions they wished they had more time to think. 

The true value of a CEO of any size organization is their ability to think and translate their thoughts into organizational action – think strategically, long and deep and wide and spatially! I imagine them like a maestro, a conductor, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Their value is keeping the orchestra members aligned, note by note, instrument by instrument, section by section while feeling their impact on the audience. They aren’t the instrument’s virtuoso delivering each note; however, they are the ones connecting all the virtuosos producing a concert. I imagine they think and envision how each section in the orchestra, strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, will navigate through the composition, delivering the perfect combination of sounds to enchant the audience. 

CEOs are the conductors of their organizations. They aren’t the virtuoso of each section: operations, human resources, finance, accounting, business development, information technology, contracts, quality, and the list goes on. Conductors are generalists who keep the members of their organization aligned and moving in the right direction, envisioned by them. Their purpose, like a maestro, is to conduct the organization so that every team member’s potential and output is harmoniously delivering a superior product or service that delights their customers. 

All too often, CEOs are comfortable remaining virtuosos. They never advance to the conductor level because their comfort is in doing, always doing, not thinking. Taking time to think strategically, long, deep, wide and spatially, is a discipline. They climbed their ladders by being achievers and getting results. They’re experts at doing, not thinking, and when not thinking, they’re diminishing their value to the organization!  

CEOs must be the thinkers, constantly contemplating the organization’s direction and how best to inspire their team to achieve exceptional results. Whether you’re a five-person startup or a 50,000-person Fortune 500 company, no other position in the organization carries this responsibility. 

 In my discussions with CEOs in the public and private sectors, I often hear them describe how busy they are: going from one meeting to the next, sifting through hundreds of emails, reviewing and correcting team member work products, attending networking and community recognition events. They fail in delegating. Their executive assistants tightly control their schedules and those seeking an audience. Such busy schedules and gatekeeping often ignore the fundamentals of leadership. The CEO who is too busy to connect with team members, emotionally respond to vital stakeholders, and clearly, directly, purposefully and inspirationally communicate to their organization is stagnating as the virtuoso and not elevating to the conductor. 

Not once in all my years did I ever hear a CEO say, “I’m too busy thinking,” yet that should be the origin of their busy-ness! Busy-ness does not equate to productivity, and thinking is not blissfully daydreaming. It’s a discipline where you organize your thoughts and willfully contemplate pathways and outcomes that create a successful business – one that is sustainable, predictable, stable, consistent and emotionally connected to its stakeholders.  

Your time to think must be calendared and protected. Like any other repeatable activity in your organization, establish a process to think strategically, long and deep, wide, and spatially. Treat this as a discipline and protect the time you devote to it. You bring the most significant value to your organization when you do.  

Like the Los Angeles Philharmonic maestro, they graduate from being the virtuoso and transform into the conductor. Stop being the virtuoso in your company and change to its maestro. Take the time to think. This is how you lead, think, plan, and act. Now, let’s get after it!   

Retired Col. Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions. Paul and Lisa mentor and coach business owners on leadership and management principles in achieving and sustaining their business growth and profitability goals. He can be reached at [email protected] 

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