There has been a lot of discussion lately about Steve Blank’s article in which he argues that Tim Cook leading Apple is comparable to Steve Ballmer leading Microsoft: Both followed after iconic visionaries - Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, respectively - who embodied the company like no one else. Both were able to increase revenue and profit numbers at an impressive scale. However, both also failed to stimulate and harness the innovative powers within their respective company, and relied mainly on their strong brand for several years.

I don’t want to add to the discussion if this is really true or not. What I find fascinating, though, is the human dimension of the problem - how the fates of huge, multi-billion corporations are affected by certain character traits of just one person. Ben Horowitz has a section in The Hard Thing About Hard Things (also available as a blog post) that could very well have served as input for Blank’s article. Horowitz classifies CEOs into two categories, which he simply calls Ones and Twos.

Horowitz: Ones and Twos

Ones are the visionaries - Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the like. They know what to do and which direction they want to move in. They have a clear vision of the future. They are great strategic thinkers and excel at making decisions, but they easily get bored with the daily business of executing a strategy, such as defining processes and procedures, setting goals for every individual employee, or conducting performance reviews.

Twos are the executors - due to the recent discussion, Steve Ballmer and Tim Cook come to mind. They know how to get the company to follow the strategy. They define processes, reduce inefficiencies, align different departments, and make everything run smoothly. Unlike Ones, they tend to enjoy the nitty-gritty details of operating a company. However, they tend to be less strategically strong than Ones, and feel far less comfortable making strategic decisions. Therefore, once they defined clear goals, they do not like changing them. Pivot is not their thing.

Buckingham: Leaders and managers

Marcus Buckingham, author of several books like First, Break All The Rules and The One Thing You Need to Know, has his own terminology for roughly the same archetypes: Leaders (Ones) and managers (Twos). Like Horowitz, Buckingham states that most people are clearly better at one or the other, rather than excelling at both (1).

In Buckingham’s terminology, a leader starts from without. He carries a vivid image of the future and has the unshakably optimistic belief that he can bring this future about. He rallies people towards the future that he sees. Because he can see it so clearly, he knows the direction in which to move, and therefore is confident in making strategic decisions. Buckingham’s leaders match Horowitz’ Ones quite perfectly.

A manager, according to Buckingham, has the exact opposite approach. She starts from within, with the people who surround her. She has each person on her team in mind, identifies and nurtures their unique talents, and turns these talents into performance for the company. A good manager is a good coach. Buckingham’s managers might match Horowitz’ Twos pretty well. However, Buckingham talks mainly about the people management side of things, while Horowitz talks about organization, processes, and running the company as a whole.

Ones and Twos as CEO

So, if you are looking for a CEO for your company, should you rather look for a One (a visionary) or a Two (an executor)? Horowitz explains:

“The primary purpose of the organizational hierarchy in a company is decision-making efficiency. It follows that most CEOs tend to be Ones.”

He goes on that Twos can become a dangerous bottleneck to decision making in the company. However, Ones come with a problem - there can hardly be two of them on one team. Two visionary leaders would pull the company in competing directions, and interfere with each other. They would most likely not get along, and fight for power. Therefore, successful Ones often assemble a great team of Twos around them to execute what they dream up.

Both Steve Blank and Ben Horowitz point out that this constellation - a visionary One as CEO, and competent executors (Twos) as the executive staff - leads to problems when the CEO leaves. If one of the executive staff, i.e., a Two, becomes the new CEO, you might end up with a Ballmer/Cook situation, where vision and innovation are (supposedly) lacking. Innovative people (Ones) in key positions will leave because they are disillusioned with the lack of innovation that follows. They will be replaced with more Twos, so that a “creative death spiral” (Horowitz) ensues.

If you, on the other side, appoint a One from the lower ranks (or from the outside) as the new CEO, many of the executive staff will leave, because they feel they are more deserving of the post. Either way, there is no easy answer.

Are you stuck where nature put you?

Being very much interested in personal development, the most relevant question to me is if Ones can learn the defining skills of Twos, and vice versa. Horowitz points out that, if founder CEOs of type One fail, it is often because they do not pick up type Two skills fast enough, or do not invest enough time in acquiring them. This implies that you can learn at least the skills of an executor, i.e., structuring and organizing the company so that chaos does not take over, and stability is established. An example for this case is, again, Steve Jobs after his return to Apple in 1997. While he was far from ready to become CEO before he was urged out of the company in 1985, he had matured in the meantime, and was ready for at least some of the compromises and boring duties that come with the job (2).

So, to a degree, leaders can learn how to be managers - at least in the organizational sense. I would venture that there are limits to their coaching ability, though. Real visionary, strategic thinkers who want to change the future almost inevitably have a powerful ego - otherwise, they would not dare to dream as big as they do. When you are blessed (or cursed) with such an ego, I suspect it is difficult to care for every uniqueness in others, hold one-on-ones with them, and develop their talents. This is not a requirement for CEOs, however - a CEO has no time to train their team anyway (according to Horowitz).

Let us turn to the opposite question: Can Twos become Ones, i.e., can managers become visionary leaders? Can you become an excellent strategic thinker, if you were previously not? In other words, are leaders born or made?

Buckingham answers very clearly: Leaders are born. You cannot learn the skill of “seeing the future in bright colours”, or being relentlessly optimistic. All that “optimism training” might achieve if you have a somewhat sad disposition is make you less pessimistic, but that is it. Likewise, have you ever heard of somebody being successfully trained in being visionary? I doubt this could work.

But maybe, Buckingham’s idea of leadership - “great leaders rally people to a better future” - is too narrow, so let us hear what Horowitz has to say. In fact, his definition is rather pragmatic:

“Leadership is the quantity, quality, and diversity of people who want to follow a person.”

He says further that leadership has three aspects to it:

  • The ability to articulate the vision. This matches Buckingham’s view - assemble people around an image of a better future. John F. Kennedy or, again, Steve Jobs, are prime examples here.
  • Integrity and care. Horowitz calls it “the right kind of ambition”: If a leader has only her self-interest at heart, smart people will notice this and refuse to follow her. Instead, some great leaders care more for their people than for themselves. Horowitz names Bill Campbell, former CEO of Intuit and Apple board member, as a great example.
  • The ability to achieve the vision. In other words, competence. Do people have enough trust in a leader’s abilities that they will follow her also through uncertain times? Horowitz’ shining example here is former Intel CEO Andy Grove.

Horowitz admits that especially the second aspect, which he calls “the right kind of ambition”, is more “born” than “made”. I would add, as mentioned above, that also the first component - developing and communicating a compelling vision - is learnable only to a small degree. The third component, competence, can certainly be learned. Horowitz insists that a leader should work on all three. He is convinced that you can become a great leader if you work hard. However, even Horowitz does not tell if you can become a One if you are a natural Two. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts on that.

You need them both

After this discussion, you might wonder which is better: One or Two, leader or manager? I have touched upon this before, and I am still convinced that you need both types to run a successful company. Usually, I am all for focusing on your strengths instead of trying to fix your weaknesses. However, I am starting to believe there are also situations where you have to acquire at least a minimum of skill in something that does not come naturally to you, in order to be able to fulfill a certain role. The difficult part is knowing when such a time has come. Is there something that you lack that absolutely keeps you from doing your work properly? Do you want to stay in that role? Then you might have no choice but to buckle down and self-improve accordingly, even if it is an activity that is unattractive to you.

Otherwise, if you can switch roles, or redefine your role so that the dreaded activity is not part of it any more, or you can partner with somebody who has complementary strengths with you - then it is probably better to focus on what you are good at, because, somewhat counterintuitively, this is where your greatest potential lies.


  1. Rands, in a talk given at the 2016 LeadDev Conference in London, gave his confirming version of this either-or phenomenon when he spoke of people being either good at “strategy” or at “execution”.
  2. You might of course argue that taking 12 years to acquire the type Two skills is too long for a company to wait.

Time investment

This blog post took me about 4.5h to write.