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Singular Leadership

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I spent some time chatting yesterday with a CIO who is planning his own succession. There are two potential internal candidates, but obviously neither has the experience of leading a technology organisation, so there are capability gaps. On an interim basis the organisation is looking to put both in charge until a new leader can be found.

But the conversation got me wondering – why do we obsess with the idea of singular leaders?

The technology management game is one of an inherent organisational tension: on the one side, the project focus is to drive change; on the other the service delivery focus is to maintain control over the status quo. That tension is valuable, vital even. Over emphasis on change can lead to chaos; over emphasis on the status quo quickly leads to organisational irrelevance.

But in the case I heard yesterday, the two staff represented either side of that divide, so why not have joint leadership?

Maybe it’s a Western culture thing, or the legacy of monotheistic religions. Maybe it’s our history of monarchy. But we seem wary of joint leadership, and even when it does exist in business or politics there is stereotyping of a dominant partner (for those of you old enough, remember the two Davids portrayed by Spitting Image?). Even at that bastion of non-hierarchy Zappos, “leader” Tony Hsieh issued a fairly dictatorial FIOFO edict recently on the back of his decision to move to holocracy.

But interestingly if we look in the arts we often see pairs of people working together, leading a creative organisation to great effect. Lennon and McCartney, Gilbert and George, Galton & Simpson… the list goes on and on. Sure there is often tension – tension that can eventually break the partnership apart – but nothing is forever and saying one shouldn’t do something because it might have to end in the future is a stupid argument.

As we look at how the world of work is fragmenting and changing, leadership in organisations needs to adapt. Maybe joint leadership is one experiment worth taking?

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