Thinking About Thinking

Missionary CEOs v. Mercenary CEOs

Posted in Philosophy, Venture Capital by larrycheng on July 27, 2009

I have always had an affinity for a particular “type” of CEO.  I never really bothered to try and define this “type” – I just knew it when I saw it.  Until last year, in an MFG.com board meeting, Jeff Bezos articulated the framework that captured my sentiments better than I could myself.  He called it: “missionary CEOs v. mercenary CEOs”.  If I had to oversimplify this framework I’d say that missionary CEOs are principally about the mission and mercenary CEOs are principally about the money.  If you met the CEOs of my portfolio companies, you’d find one missionary after another.  Watching Jeff Bezos’ recent video to Zappos reminded me of this nugget of wisdom and reminded me that Jeff is perhaps the perfect example of a missionary CEO.

Jeff’s wisdom notwithstanding, I do not believe that he coined this framework.  After some research, I think he probably heard it from one of his venture investors – John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins who adapted it from The Monk and the Riddle, by Randy Comisar.  Here is John Doerr speaking at Stanford in 2005 articulating how Kleiner views the difference between missionary CEOs and mercenary CEOs.

Over this past year, I have come to appreciate why you invest in missionary CEOs.  Despite one of the most challenging economic times in a century, all of my CEOs exhibited incredible leadership, drive, and passion through thick and thin.  In the darkest moments of this past year, they all demonstrated unwavering commitment and enthusiasm that carried their companies through.  While I don’t know what the future holds for these companies or for the economy, I do know that I am very proud to be associated with each and every one of my CEOs.  They are all great leaders and even better people – worthy of being called missionary CEOs.

[Another piece of wisdom from Jeff Bezos:  How Can We Double Down?]