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 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?]

21 Responses

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  1. I love the fact you brought up the topic. Since I am a startup operations “guy”, I am usually a right hand person to the CEO. They envision, I help execute. Sometimes you spend more time with the CEO than you do with your family, so philosophy fit is a must.

    I have worked with a few CEOs in my 12-year career in startups and I have definitely experience with both types. You can probably guess which ones I prefer by how long I have spent in those companies.

    Core difference I see between missionary v. mercenary is long-term sustainable growth v. short-term flash in the pan.

    P.S. Couple of weeks ago I have written and article: Difference between “My CEO” and “Our CEO” –
    Would love to get some feedback on it.

    • larrycheng said, on July 28, 2009 at 7:18 am

      Helpful post as well Apollo. Thanks for the feedback. I’m thinking about writing a post about being long-term. It is actually a unique attribute. Jeff Bezos refers to it in his video.

  2. […] CEOs vs Mercenary CEOs July 28, 2009 — Ryan Kiskis I think this has been one of the most helpful little videos for me as I think through my next steps. Balancing […]

  3. Markus Jevring said, on July 28, 2009 at 2:32 am

    Apostrophe-s (‘s) indicates ownership. You’re looking for plural s.
    For example “Mercenary CEO’s gun”, the gun owned by a mercenary CEO.
    Compare this to “Mercenary CEOs”, one or more CEOs that can be considered mercenary.

    • larrycheng said, on July 28, 2009 at 6:54 am

      Markus – how embarassing – you’re totally right. That’s what I get for writing a post while watching the Red Sox game. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. […] Ein guter Post von Larry Cheng zu den intrinsischen Motivationen von Gründern und Entrepreneuren: Missionary CEO’s v. Mercenary CEO’s « Thinking About Thinking. […]

  5. » Missionary CEOs said, on July 28, 2009 at 6:03 am

    […] Cheng writes this morning about his affinity for “missionary CEO’s vs. mercenary CEO’s.” Over this past year, I have come to appreciate why you invest in missionary CEO’s.  Despite […]

  6. Tiffany Fox said, on July 28, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I smiled as soon as I saw your headline because it’s all too familiar to me:)… although I’ve never heard him limit missionaries vs. mercenaries to CEO’s, Chris first started talking about this very thing way back in the E-Loan days as the dotcom bubble started to burst… saying too many mercenaries were in the mix… and things start getting good again when they’re weeded out and the missionaries (old and new) once again outnumber the mercenaries.

    • larrycheng said, on July 28, 2009 at 10:15 pm

      Tiffany – great to hear from you. Your point is well taken that this could extend well beyond CEO’s. Chris is a great example of a missionary who probably hires folks with common values.

  7. Top Posts « said, on July 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    […] Missionary CEOs v. Mercenary CEOs I have always had an affinity for a particular “type” of CEO.  I never really bothered to try and define this […] […]

  8. […] vs. mercenary founders/CEOs, and why they only invest in the missionary types. Hat tip to Larry Cheng’s blog where I found this video … Larry also identifies one of the top missionary founder CEOs of […]

  9. […] Missionary CEOs v. Mercenary CEOs « Thinking About Thinking (tags: entrepreneur startup management empreender) […]

  10. […] a Missionary, Not a Mercenary Larry Cheng wrote a great post contrasting missionary CEOs to mercenary CEOs.  It is obvious that at the CEO level a company requires a missionary leader.  Building a company […]

  11. […] founder (passionate about a vision that keeps you awake at night). Great video on that point here. Regardless of whether your end game is a vision realized or a big pile of cash (or some […]

  12. Jeff jochum said, on May 31, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    I am always amused by these absolute good vs. bad discussions… If only it were really that binary. I’ve never actually heard any CEO, incuding myself, identify themselves as “mercenary” nor have I ever heard anyone defend this position. In truth, most CEOs slip and slide between these two extremes, often on a daily basis. It’s a balancing act and, depending on the current level of success, is really motivated by circumstance. I do believe that setting clear goals and concise, executable strategies based on a” missionary” philosophy can be the best hedge against mercenary tactics or giving in to short-term results. So, to my mind, the real separation between CEOs is how they define the foundation of their business: the Strategist vs. The Star.


  13. Ogundele Olusola Emmanuel said, on December 6, 2011 at 11:31 am

    pls. feed me with the update.
    thank you.

  14. […] Missionary CEOs v. Mercenary CEOs  […]

  15. […] More information in a blog post about missionary vs mercenary (focused on CEO’s) […]

  16. Why I’m Doubling Down On Israel | said, on July 24, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    […] I’m all in on Israel because I want to do things I believe in. I want to be a“missionary” CEO rather than a “ mercenary” CEO, as defined by various VCs from Randy Komisar to John Doerr. […]

  17. […] founder (passionate about a vision that keeps you awake at night). Great video on that point here. Regardless of whether your end game is a vision realized or a big pile of cash (or some […]

  18. Midweek Miscellany said, on August 11, 2020 at 11:50 am

    […] passion for their ideas vs. those out to make a quick undeserved exit.  She borrowed it from John Doerr, who clipped it from Jeff Bezos, who picked it from Randy Komisar’s book The Monk and the […]

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