Multiple CEOs - The Sustainable Leadership Structure


Many challenges raised in the HBS article “Seven Surprises for New CEOs” can be solved by a joint leadership structure.  Perhaps we need to re-think the idea of a single CEO at the top.  The idea made sense when companies were smaller, and one person can handle the complexity of the job.  When companies with populations larger than countries still report to a single CEO, it’s time to re-consider the structure.    Three observations lead me to believe that a joint leadership structure, where multiple CEO-like heavyweight leaders work as a team, is a better and more sustainable leadership structure.   The three observations are:

1.       Political structures often involve joint leadership.  Consider UK’s Prime Minister and Queen pairing.  One handles internal political affairs while the other handles outward facing matters.  The US government by design has executive, legislative and judiciary branches all working together as a governing unit. 
2.       Large academic institutions have joint leadership by Dean and President.  Both report to the board and wield power in different domains, but are both viewed as equal leaders for the institution.
3.       Companies where the founder took another leadership position such as CTO and hired in someone else to act as CEO are often successful.   Microsoft, Google, SunPower are examples of such companies.  Company founders without the formal CEO title still wields power equal to the CEO position.  Thus such companies can be considered to have a joint leadership structure.

When the leadership becomes a joint effort, amazing effects happen.  Bandwidth issues raised in the article such as “You can’t run the company” and “You are still only human” melt away.  Multiple people can rise to the challenge of tackling both the outside facing and internal elements of the CEO job.  Ego issues such as “You are not the boss” stays in check in a team setting where members wield equal power.  Ivory tower issues such as “It Is Hard to Know What Is Really Going On” while still present, can be dampened by the availability of multiple points of view.   

We may have come to a turning point in business where the structure itself is under review.  The migration to joint leadership may be near.  Since the economic meltdown, boards are building closer ties to their companies, creating pseudo joint leadership structures.   What do you think is the future of business leadership structure?