Synthesis: From Lone Hero to a Culture of Leadership

November 2010; Source: Harvard Business Review | This review of three books about alternatives to the one-CEO model should provoke some debate in the nonprofit sector. The books focus on CEO partners, such as Michael Eisner and Frank Wells leading Disney, though the reviewers make it clear that Eisner’s book is both Eisner’s effort to burnish his cantankerous and controversial image and to present co-CEO Wells in a clearly subordinate decision. Nonetheless, the three books—or perhaps the review—raise issues that the reviewers (from the Center for Creative Leadership) link to one of NPQ’s favorites, Warren Bennis, and two of his phenomenal books, Co-Leaders and Organizing Genius. Most of us, we would suggest, look at the notion of co-CEOs as a sign of organizational dysfunction, the inability of a board to settle on one person to lead an organization into the future, but maybe that isn’t so. This author remembers his tenure a quarter century ago as a VP at a national nonprofit community development intermediary, which had co-CEOs (in addition to its visionary, semi-retired founder) running the show. For a briefing of one of the major newsweeklies about a new community development program, neither CEO was available to go, so as VP, I was sent. Meeting the program’s major foundation supporter at his office, he and I walked to the magazine’s building and had a conversation en route. He asked how it was to work for two CEOs, and I responded dutifully, about how we all knew when to take issues to one or the other based on their talents and spheres of organizational interest, even though I also could have added that some issues required both CEOs weighing in and a back-and-forth going to one and the other that made decision-making sometimes beyond slow. Suddenly, he turned to me and said, “Don’t you think that having two CEOs makes you look silly?” I humina-humina’ed a response and quivered through the briefing. Maybe instead of silly, the organization’s two-CEO leadership was insightful and prescient and made us perhaps more deliberate but more thoughtful. How do NPQ readers feel about the two (or more) CEO model?—Rick Cohen

  • Knute Rotto

    Maybe the size and scope of an organization could make a difference in having 2 CEO’s, however, overall I believe it would be difficult to make it work. I would ask the question, Why do you need 2? are they really both CEO’s or is one a COO in cognito? What does the rest of the org chart look like?

  • Peter Manda

    It all depends on the co-CEOs characters; as it depends on the character of the organization. When cooperation works, then the co-operation can lead to the desire you point toward: deliberative outcomes. But where cooperation leads to coopt-ing, then even deliberative delegation won’t save an organization the concomitant strife.

  • Warren Bennis

    Just wanted to say that I love your comments. Your openness and thoughtful responses to the questions you raise just gave me a rare frisson of pleasure, someone, who “gets you,” feeling known.
    thank you.
    Warren Bennis