The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

"By Dictating You Can't Get Far." A Study of the CEO Leadership Experiences in the Big Finnish Companies

Jussi Kulla

Doctoral dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Science in Technology to be presented with due permission of the School of Science for public examination and debate in Auditorium TU1 at the Aalto University School of Science (Espoo, Finland) on the 20th of May 2011 at 12 noon.

Dissertation in PDF format (ISBN 978-952-60-4102-5)   [3218 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 978-952-60-4101-8)

Note: The language of the dissertation is Finnish.


This study focused on the chief executive officers (CEOs) of 20 big Finnish companies and their leadership experiences. The topic has previously been studied only little in Finland. The research applied the method of existential-phenomenological psychology, which falls within the scope of quality research.

The CEOs defined leadership as interaction in order both to set and to achieve common goals. Although they favored an interactive leadership style, at times they may have to abandon this style, because company leadership is not democracy, although sometimes this may be assumed and expected.

According to this study, on average it took 18 years to develop into a CEO. Essential in the process were early recognition and development of leadership potential, which requires an active approach on the part of the first superiors. They played a critical role as supporters and organizers of new opportunities, i.e., as career initiators. The CEOs interviewed themselves were unaware of their own capabilities and development areas in the early phase of their career, but they emphasized the importance of the wide range of experiences acquired during that time to the development of their careers. In the acquisition of experiences, rapid changes of tasks and difficult assignments were considered to be important. The skills needed for the work of a CEO were acquired in stages; this study describes the development. The CEOs considered human relations skills at work to be the most important sphere of expertise.

The study findings indicate that CEOs focused their leadership on people, not on managing issues or management systems as is generally thought. They paid particular attention to the management group, with whom and through whom they wished to lead. They described their activities in accordance with both upper echelon and transformative theory, but in their work they also applied transactional means, such as rewards.

CEOs work long hours per week and the work is loading, owing to the differing expectations of various stakeholders. Their work limits free time and family life. CEOs overall remuneration is high, but money is not their primary incentive. They are motivated, above all, by the work, its challenges, the experiences of having succeeded together with others, and reputation as a management professional. With regard to motivation, however, corporate boards apply agent theory and its underlying assumption of conflicting objectives and lack of trust, which are eliminated through high rewards. This study indicates that the so-called stewardship theory would be a better approach for motivating CEOs.

Keywords: CEO, executive, executive leadership, strategic leadership, leadership, management, experience, phenomenology

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© 2011 Aalto University

Last update 2011-05-26