Star CEOs

There are no superhero CEOs

December 3, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Because many chief execs control so much money and we pay them so handsomely, we want to believe they deserve to be treated like stars. Most of the time, we are building ourselves up for disappointment. How to break the cycle.Superhero Businessman Standing on Pedestal --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

FORTUNE -- We want so badly to believe in superheroes. When it comes to business leaders, that can quickly turn into a liability. Many chief execs control so much money, and we pay them so handsomely, so we treat them -- and want to believe they deserve to be treated -- like stars.

In business, "the culture of celebrity is maybe as strong as it's ever been," says Zachary First, managing director of The Drucker Institute.

Several forces create a star CEO. For one, high-profile leaders tend to know how to work a room, and many may have learned to like the limelight. But also, employees, the market and the media want strong leaders, and sometimes strength becomes conflated with infallibility. Star CEOs are not inherently bad for business, though they can be. J.C. Penney (JCP) CEO Ron Johnson, for example, is dealing with a particularly tight margin of error at the struggling retailer partly because of his especially impressive performance as senior VP of retail operations at Apple (AAPL).

A couple of organizations have tried to mitigate dependence on one central leader. W.L Gore and Associates, the company behind the high-tech, waterproof fabric GORE-TEX has what is called a "flat lattice" leadership scheme. They've created an entire language around this: they call bosses "sponsors," and have no employees, but "associates." The company holds that leaders will naturally emerge when groups form to accomplish certain tasks.

MORE: Super-talented employee driving you crazy? How to deal.

But a non-hierarchical structure requires a tremendous amount of work, says First, and even functional flat companies have founders and CEOs. "To look up the social hierarchy and not see anyone at the top is an extremely stressful position for companies to be in. We want to know that somebody's in charge, that there is an authority."

It takes a village to make those authorities stars. "They're only celebrities because a lot of people choose to go and sit in the audience to hear them," First says. More

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