The announcement last month that Steve Jobs was stepping down as chief executive of Apple for health reasons had an immediate impact on share prices and has prompted discussion about whether it is good for a company to be so identified with one individual.
The so called “cult of the chief executive” is also recognised in the public sector. These are individuals who are credited with turning around failing organisations or for making mediocre organisations great. Some come in at a point of crisis, work their magic and go on to bigger and greater things; others build over many years and go only reluctantly when retirement beckons.
But whichever type they are, they present the same problem: what happens when they leave?
I am sure even Steve Jobs, credited as he is for making Apple a globally successful company, has a very competent team of senior managers backing him up and that Apple has some of the brightest and most innovative people in the industry working for them. So why was the stock exchange so nervous?
Put another way - why does any successful organisation, service or team worry about the impact of a high profile leader leaving, unless they think what has been achieved is all down to that individual?
Some of this can be explained by natural anxiety along the lines of, what if the replacement isn’t any good or wants to change everything? There may be a concern that some of the most able and experienced managers will see this as the time to go, their loyalty was to the individual not the organisation. New chief executives, like new senior managers, want to surround themselves with their own appointments, people who think like them and don’t keep referring to how things were done under the predecessor. So some closely associated with the old order may be encouraged to go. There may be concern that these changes of key personnel will adversely affect the organisation albeit in the short term.
It could also be that this high profile, highly regarded charismatic leader’s achievements were down to their sheer force of personality, people at all levels in the organisation believed in this person and were prepared to go along with their vision and their decisions because they liked and respected them.
Nothing wrong with that, you might say, we want and need leaders who inspire their staff. Well in my view we don’t.
This type of leadership may be very effective in a crisis but this “cult of the leader” is very damaging for an organisation in the longer term. To use a sporting analogy this would be the difference between a great team and a great club.
A great team goes a whole season without losing, a great club is one that has a succession of successful teams: even though the individuals change the philosophy behind the way the club is run doesn’t. In organisational terms the culture is not follow the leader, the culture is based on a shared set of values, a shared vision of the future and an agreed way of doing things. This will not change - even if the leader does.