“Wartime CEO” and The J-Curve

A 2011 blog post by Ben Horowitz helped to popularize the concept of the “peacetime CEO/wartime CEO”. In times of crisis, this concept is sometimes cited as a rationale for the “wartime CEO” approach, meaning a more hard-core, command-and-control, higher intensity style of leadership. The 2011 blog post says, among other things, a wartime CEO is paranoid, unforgiving, and doesn’t tolerate disagreement or “indulge” in consensus building.

There is another concept called the J-Curve. (See the 2006 book by the same name, written by Ian Bremmer.) The J-Curve describes styles of national government, showing the relationship between openness (freedom) and stability. It also works well as a model for corporate leadership. An illustration of the J-Curve is shown below.

Let’s apply the J-Curve to a typical company. Let’s say the company is currently at position A on the curve (see below). Position A is a good place to be. If you’re there, you might hope to move a little further up-and-to-the-right over time, but even if you don’t, you can live well at position A for a long time.

Then along comes a crisis, pushing the company to position B on the curve, where there is both less stability and less openness. In response to the crisis, if the CEO chooses to adopt a “wartime CEO” approach, this shifts the company further, toward position C on the curve, restoring some stability, but reducing openness even more.

Months go by, the company survives, and the crisis begins to lift. Now, what happens? The company wants to return to its prior position on the J-Curve (position A), reflecting its desire to operate with more openness, which is important for innovation, workplace attractiveness, and the culture it desires. But there is no ferry boat to take them directly from position C to A; they have to travel along the curve, passing first through position B and another period of decreased stability before arriving where they want to be longer term (position A).

This “travel back” along the curve is almost always an unexpected challenge, taxing an already tired team who, post-crisis, thought they were in the clear. This is an extra cost of the wartime CEO approach: the added post-crisis challenge it brings and the drag it puts on a company trying to get back on track. It’s one of many reasons to resist the wartime CEO approach as much as possible. In an extreme situation, it might be the right choice, but it isn’t a choice to relish or admire. If you choose it (or have chosen it), be ready for the extra challenge post-crisis.

Published by Mitch Barns


2 thoughts on ““Wartime CEO” and The J-Curve

  1. I could not agree more. The whole wartime thing not only engenders the opposite of an open, engaged workforce it’s just wrong – at no instance is war to be considered a good analogy in business. It’s served by
    machoism, alienates the people who perhaps have been impacted by conflict and encourages the wrong behaviors at all levels. Thanks for providing models to consider as alternatives.

  2. Very interesting concept indeed! The two immediate thoughts that come to mind are

    1. Public companies versus privately held
    In this dimension, your article set me on wondering if Public company CEOs feel an added pressure during a crisis from Board members, shareholders and media – and that produces different degrees of open/ closed approaches inside these enterprises as against privately held Cos.

    2. Embattled CEO’s instincts and biases
    When I was thinking of CEOs fighting off a set of crises, I was reminded of the 1996 return of a battle-hardened, matured Steve Jobs to take over Apple that had only a few days of cash and a bunch of hairy problems.His instincts seem to have been to re-jig and re-set the product mix and that defined the entire move on the J-curve. But other CEOs have other biases too in dealing with crises and creating their narratives – financial-engineering, strategic M&A reviews, PR blitzkriegs, internal leadership musical-chairs, etc. The difference in all of these on an open/ closed company culture is the internal team’s belief on the company’s mission and their faith on the CEO’s ability to lead them out of the crisis.

    Mitch – Thanks for a thought-provoking read! Really enjoyed it…

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