I stumbled across the term “Wartime CEO” during a casual coffee shop conversation, and it has captivated my attention ever since. The influence “Wartime” and “Peacetime” CEOs have on business outcomes and company culture has a powerful, cascading effect throughout a company. CEOs impact every leader, meeting, and deliverable they encounter, and set the tone for the entire management structure. Many people focus intensely on their direct manager and team, but understanding your CEO’s style as well can help you navigate the company.
What defines wartime and peacetime CEOs?
Wartime CEOs focus on overcoming existential threats — industry shifts, exponential growth by competitors, and economic downturns — and often fixate on their immediate goal to the detriment of other things. They target winning, defeating the competition, and forging a path forward, regardless of the costs. To them, the ends always justify the means.
Peacetime CEOs, by contrast, focus on growing the company organically through infrastructure, people, and processes. They tend to concentrate on expanding the market, nurturing their employees, and shaping the organizational culture. To them, their people are their greatest asset.
Who should work for a wartime CEO?
Because Wartime CEOs can be obsessed with the tactics needed to win the battle at hand, they are often unable to focus on building infrastructure and long-term talent. Culture and infrastructure are privileges of the victorious, but if you’re always at war then they’re never a focus. Similarly, there is rarely budget set aside for long-term innovation or special projects because the priority is the immediate battle. Success is short-term and ascribed to the team leader, so even when things are running smoothly, there is the constant paranoia that another team or counterpart will claim credit. There is intense internal competition for projects and attention, without particular regard to “fairness.” Motivation is by way of the stick rather than the carrot, and quality people are retained through “survival of the fittest” rather than mentoring and growth.
However, focusing on short-term battles over long-term infrastructure means that the wartime CEO isn’t afraid to throw away sunk costs and shift direction quickly when needed. People can and will be sacrificed if a win can be had, but a win leads to more wins, and a winning company will attract more good people. Having a single point of direction rather than consensus-driven leadership means decisions are made much more quickly. It’s clear when the wartime CEO means business (or, you know, war), and everyone aligns quickly. The defensive tactics that employees use to cover themselves may lead to less teamwork, but the ability to quickly align vast resources for a given fight provides an advantage.
You should work for a wartime CEO if competition is its own reward. If you’re confident in your ability to succeed without the support of others. If you thrive in chaos, and are willing to break the rules to create victories.
Who should work for a Peacetime CEO?
Peacetime CEOs often plan out the strategy first before focusing on the tactics, taking the time to build infrastructure, consensus, and talent. Culture is a focus rather than an afterthought. Peacetime leaders celebrate victories, and share that success. These leaders create “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” to focus the team, so that they stay motivated when there isn’t an impending threat. They reward with carrots based on periodic and thorough employee performance evaluations, with the goal of fairness and curating long-term talent. Rather than ruling with an iron first, they are much more consensus-driven. Jerks are driven out because they find it harder to build consensus and succeed.
But, what happens if the carefully thought-out strategy and complicated infrastructure are solving the wrong problem? Or a new problem arises? It’s much harder to pivot when your sunk costs are so high, and the company is accustomed to consensus-driven decision making. Teamwork can produce amazing results, but a few bad actors can derail the entire system. In hard times, carrot-driven employees will be frustrated that the carrots are gone. Innovation budgets are the first to go, followed shortly by the sense of empowerment and fairness. Employees accustomed to success may not be willing to fight through hard times.
You should work for a peacetime CEO if you believe success flows from infrastructure, process, and teamwork. If you believe in consensus and buy into a company’s culture. If you can cultivate people and work within the system, and believe the system will support you in return.
Quintessential Wartime CEO: Larry Ellison
As I saw firsthand, Oracle has always been led by wartime CEOs. Larry Ellison, Mark Hurd, and Safra Catz have all focused on dominating the competition and winning at all costs. As the longtime founder CEO, Larry led the company through decades of strategic inflection points, from starting as a database company to expanding into enterprise applications, the cloud, and now health and AI. Every pivot has been intensely challenging, and it takes a truly dedicated wartime CEO to do this over and over again.
Oracle Cloud was built twice, by two separate teams working in parallel. One team was directly tasked with the assignment while the other was a smaller, less-resourced tiger team that was given the flexibility to innovate through test-and-learn iteration. The teams were aware of each other, and the purpose-built competitive environment led to a lot of chaos while destroying any semblance of a collaborative or supportive working environments for employees. Ultimately, the smaller team won and the competition led to a high-quality product developed in a short timespan. But, could the larger team have done a better job if they hadn’t been fending off internal competition, were allowed more flexibility, or if they were able to collaborate? It’s hard to say. In this case, the winning team did so by ignoring the rules, and it worked because wartime CEOs don’t care about the rules if you can help them win. This breeds chaos and benefits those who thrive in it.
This wartime mentality extends to external competition as well. In every single keynote, earnings call, or external event, Oracle’s wartime CEOs compare themselves to competitors. Over the years, this has led to a repeated pattern of competitor name-calling. When I first took over global brand and marketing, I didn’t yet understand the distinction between wartime and peacetime CEOs, and I tried to apply the principles espoused by traditional management books (which are usually written by peacetime CEOs trying to mentor others). When I asked, “Why can’t we stand on the quality and integrity of our products without comparing ourselves to others?” leadership would counter: “How will people understand how fast or efficient our offering is without the comparison? This stuff is complex.” Ultimately, I realized that you can’t take the competition out of the wartime CEO, and frankly, you shouldn’t try. Instead, identify competitive benchmarks that can be used to achieve the desired result — “Why are our customer satisfaction metrics so low compared with our competition, and how do we improve them to win the war?”
Model Peacetime CEO: Tim Cook
While Steve Jobs was another quintessential wartime CEO, his successor Tim Cook has done a great job as peacetime CEO. He has continued investing in iPhone, iPad, and Mac, establishing Apple as a premier brand that can command a huge margin. He also established supporting product lines such as Apple Watch, AirPods, and services, each of which provide their own market as well as expand the market for the main products. Under Tim, Apple is operationally savvy and people-oriented, from investments in culture to external social causes. In addition to rigorous annual review cycles and compensation structures, Apple issued off-cycle bonuses in early 2022 to top employees to improve retention ahead of potential competitor poaching. Under Tim’s leadership, Apple has maintained its status as the world’s most valuable company, and is now worth more than $3 trillion. https://www.reuters.com/technology/apples-market-value-breaches-3-trillion-mark-again-2023-06-30/
And yet, in the peacetime culture, there are so many meetings because consensus needs to be reached for many decisions, and employees need to feel individually supported. This reduces the speed of decision-making, and makes innovation more difficult, especially as peacetime cultures do not reward rule-breaking. Will Apple miss the next big technology because it can’t move as fast, or will it win in the long run because its infrastructure sets it up to succeed? Will it see an iceberg in its path, or be so focused on the long-range view that it misses the short-range blockers?
What kind of leader is better for you?
In war you move fast, and at peace you build to last, but there are always opportunities for both. Most leaders have natural tendencies in one direction or the other, but the best kind of leader can match her style to the environment in which she leads, and adapt as needed.
Understanding the CEO and the culture they establish, as well as your own style and culture in which you thrive, will help you choose which companies fit your professional style best, and help define the behaviors that will lead to your professional success.
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While I initially thought my coffeeshop conversation originated the concepts of Wartime and Peacetime CEOs, I later discovered that Ben Horowitz wrote a blog post over a decade ago that was later published in his book, The Hard Thing about Hard Things. That article helped me develop my own views more deeply for the purposes of this post, and also made me chuckle in agreement when he said that most management books are written by peacetime CEOs. The exception he mentions is Only the Paranoid Survive, by former Intel CEO Andy Grove.
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In April 2023, I left Oracle after almost 11 years, serving a number of roles including Chief of Staff to Larry Ellison, VP Global Marketing and Brand, VP Product Strategy and Marketing Oracle Health, and Head of Oracle for Startups and Oracle for Research. This post is week 2 of me sharing 11 things I learned over these 11 years here and on LinkedIn, and I hope you’ll join me for this journey.