Doreen Lorenzo, president of frog, wrote a provocative piece for Fortune.com: “Are We Living in a Post-CEO World?”
Author Bob Frisch offered a rejoinder: “Why the CEO is Here to Stay.”
Each declaration is spirited; neither gets it quite right.
The New World of 21st Century Leadership
Leadership in the 21st century is different from its mid-20th century antecedents. Serve to Lead examines these changes in some detail.
Most pertinent here: expertise and information is reposed at the “bottom” of organizations, and, in many if not most cases, “outside” of them. The task of leadership, including day-to-management is being transformed as a result.
Does that mean CEO’s are unnecessary?
Lorenzo describes Steve Jobs as an archetypal CEO. She then suggests the nub of her argument: “The world’s chief executives will be increasingly hard-pressed to go it alone as leaders. Only by building and maintaining a strong, flexible, diverse, and solidly aligned leadership team will they be able to face the challenges ahead.” [emphasis added].
No Leader Walks Alone
Lorenzo’s basic statement is surely correct. Where she goes wrong is in thinking her observation applies only to today’s leadership tasks—and in her subsequent conclusion that the CEO position is an anachronism.
No leader ever goes it alone. This was true even of the most hierarchical industrial age organizations. The best CEOs created and nurtured and cultivated outstanding teams. The most effective strove to create leaders throughout their organizations.
CEO Position Will Evolve
There are changes, but they point to continuing evolution of executive leadership, not the end of the CEO per se.
What is decidedly different is that the traditional notion of a boss is ending in many organizations. Leadership is becoming more akin to coaching. Collaboration toward defined ends, the productive use of teams, requires leadership and guidance on an ongoing basis.
Collaboration requires accountability. It necessitates decisions. Ultimately, it must work within a broader, evolving vision.
These factors do not point toward the end of the CEO. They do point to leaders and managers and organizations becoming more adaptive. Many kinds of management will be seen.
Ultimately, collaboration should not be confused with governance by committee. In fact, even effective committees tend to have effective positional leaders.
The position of CEO–and its analogues in other settings—will endure. Its role will evolve as we continue to move from the world of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “one best way” to the new outside-in, bottom-up world of the 21st century.
The End of the CEO?