Senior Leader: Operator versus Intellect

By | November 6, 2013

[November 06, 2013]  In many organizations there is a bit of a split persona – in particular, as it applies to those who are selected to advance to the more senior leadership positions.

There are those people who are the exceptional and successful operators, who in the US Army we call the “warfighter.” These are those folks who make things happen, who are flexible decision-makers, “cool under fire,” able to pull off amazing results under difficult circumstances, and achieve things a normal person could only dream of.  This is the epitome of a leader.

Then, there are those who possess exceptional intellect, who are able to vigorously devour facts and can “connect the dots” from diverse sources, and visualize the future and how to get there.  These are the geniuses who can “see” the future and the obstacles and solutions to get there.

While there are those senior leaders who are a bit of both, it’s usually those with the operational background that ultimately rise to be the most senior leader … flag officers, CEOs, Presidents.  Certainly these exceptional operators are also thinkers and planners; but the latter is not their specialty.

It is even rarer that someone comes along that has both attributes of superior operator and creative intellect.  For example, Winston Churchill – the person of the century who was able to create a vision and possess the intellect and courage to move Britain from certain defeat to victory against Nazi Germany.

We demand the intellect, we revere it, but ultimately we desire the operator more often than not because that person has proven themselves in the concrete results of good leadership.  The intellect, too mystique, too much of an unknown, less results oriented, we love them but reject as our most important leaders.

What is the answer?  Who should we chose?  In academics, it is the intellect.  In the military, it is the operator.  In the world of business, it is the operator more often than the intellect.

Is this choice a mistake?  Probably not and our decisions will not be changing soon in the future.  As long as the senior leader chosen to lead the organization has the relevant experience, the decision comes down to whether the right leader chosen is right for the job … and that is the operator.



Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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