Theses Doctoral

Lonely at the Top: A Study on How CEOs in Philanthropy Learn to Make Strategic Decisions

Jahedi, Beeta

This qualitative multiple-case study was designed to explore how CEOs in philanthropy learn to make strategic decisions. The study builds off the following premises: (1) as part of their role, CEOs need to make critical decisions in a complex and rapidly changing environment; (2) due to the role of a CEO there are power dynamics at play, and these may have an impact on how CEOs are able to engage in conversation; and (3) due to the staff reporting to the CEO and the CEO reporting to the board, they are essentially peerless within their respective organization, possibly contributing to a sense of isolation.

The research site of this study was across a number of organizations, one for each participant. There were three primary sources of data: semi-structured interviews, data collection of publicly available documents, and critical incident reports. Key findings included that: (1) all participants engaged with staff and/or the Board of directors before making a strategic decision, either to obtain buy-in or get information needed to make the decision; (2) informal learning was the primary way participants learned what activities they needed to partake in, in order to make a critical decision; and (3) having full authority and responsibility helped CEOs in their decision-making, while power and other interpersonal dynamics hindered a CEOs ability to make a critical decision. Two main categories of CEOs emerged during the data collection process, those who were deemed Reflective and those who were Action-Oriented.

Although not part of this research study’s original design, the data collection took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and also after a resurgence of attention to police brutality against Black people in the United States and other violence towards historically marginalized groups. These themes were prevalent throughout the data gathered for this study and findings and analysis.

The overarching recommendation emanating from this research is that succession plans should be put in place in order to best develop potential candidates for the role of CEO.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Volpe, Marie
Yorks, Lyle
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
February 23, 2022