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Chief executives project an air of certainty but their real state of mind must be constant doubt.

How do I know? First, very few of us go through a day without feeling bursts of anxiety about what we have done, are doing or will do. Second, it is the overriding message emerging from anonymous interviews with 152 chief executives for a study by Oxford’s Saïd Business School and Heidrick & Struggles, the headhunter. Third, accepting that many situations have no definitive solution — one of the characteristics of a paradox — could, paradoxically, be the surest way to handle them.

The CEO study, out on Wednesday, is cunningly timed for this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos. The forum is thought of as the acme of corporate self-confidence. It is in fact designed to exacerbate executive angst. Every participant is afflicted by Stardust Memories Syndrome. In the opening scene of the Woody Allen film, the director sits in a train with a bunch of depressed or dubious-looking passengers. A clock ticks menacingly in the background. Allen glances across the tracks to see another carriage in which beautiful and important people are whooping it up. He pleads with the guard but cannot change trains. Davos in a nutshell.

Worrying about whether they are at the right party is, however, only a subset of the wider concern afflicting Davos Man and Woman. They are also bound to wonder why they are in the Alps at all, wearing snow boots and talking about mindfulness or machine learning, rather than inspiring staff, doing deals and tackling crises. Not all can reconcile the two conflicting demands. Rupert Murdoch called off his trip in 2011 in order to deal with the UK phone-hacking scandal. A coven of bankers pulled out in 2009 as high finance melted down. Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, has chosen to stay away this year as he prepares for a quantitative easing announcement on Thursday.

Leaders of large organisations must balance the internal tensions of a matrix structure — region versus function, local versus global — and the demands of external constituents such as politicians, the public and pressure groups, which they often used to be able to ignore.

At the same time, their own existence is rife with contradiction. One CEO tells the Oxford researchers: “You can’t wait for 100 per cent certainty . . . but you can’t just make a guess.” Another suggests: “The areas I’m strong in are also potentially my weakness.” It is “important to marry [my] gut feeling with the ability to be humble enough to ask”, says a third.

Getting this balance right requires, another says, “an almost insane combination of extreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, combined with complete humility”. Insane, indeed. The tension helps explain the short tenure of many chief executives (or, they might argue, helps justify the Alpine size of their compensation).

Inevitably, the temptation to take the easier path of command-and-control or micromanagement is strong. At the other extreme, a chief executive who disconnects entirely from operations risks turning into a 21st-century version of the discredited hero-leader. The boss who delegates day-to-day issues to his team so he can “get a bird’s-eye view, scanning the horizon for context without clutter”, sounds as though he suffers from a God complex.

But proposals for handling dilemmas are unnervingly vague: the study advises executives to develop “ripple intelligence” and “harness their doubts”, acts I put in the same category as herding cats or stapling jelly.

A drastic alternative would be to cut the complexity of the organisation itself. Jamie Dimon (a regular and outspoken Davos-goer) recently complained about the number of regulators pestering JPMorgan. Simplifying its structure would eliminate some of the intractable issues the chief executive has to confront.

Even if break-up is a step too far, multinationals still have to re-educate would-be CEOs. Taught to spot a paradox, some senior leaders at GlaxoSmithKline realise “I’ve been trying to solve this as a problem — now I understand why it never leaves my desk”, says Kim Lafferty, the pharmaceutical group’s vice-president for global leadership development.

In other words, for many of the most important issues chief executives now face, the traditional instruction “Bring me solutions, not problems” seems to have lost its potency.


Twitter: @andrewtghill

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