Corporate leadership – form follows function

In a curious experiment when I was in architecture school, we gave up titles in the leadership of the student government. Instead of the usual president, vice president, etc., we elected four at-large representatives that we arbitrarily called the “Henries.” Each Henry assumed some responsibility for certain aspects of getting things done, and made decisions in committee.I don’t think it had much continuity beyond the tenure of the initial gang of four.

More recently I’ve been part of an organization that, in transition from the founding father’s leadership and a past failure at a successful CEO transition, designated a 3-person executive management team. While there are some natural differentiators in the voice and leadership role that each plays, they consistently attempt to present themselves to the company as “the three amigos.”

Jena McGregor considers the issue of co-leadership in Business Week’s Management IQ blog this week, and considers the approach “littered with landmines.” In my own experience, it seems that good times yield tolerance for these experiments and diffusion of leadership, but that the crucible of declining fortunes yields either finger pointing and distintegration or the opportunity for an individual to step forward, take the reigns and responsibility, and establish hierarchy.

But in more traditional forms of executive leadership, things haven’t been rosy. Business in America has been experiencing some spectacular CEO failures over the past few months, and those stories offer cautions to boards about the free reign given to powerful and charismatic individuals. And today, with the GM bankruptcy filing, we see the impact of the failure of individual leadership, and its replacement by a committee, in the interim, and the eventual replacement of a passive board with a probably much more active and attentive one.

Is there a consistent “form follows function” in business governance and management?

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