Goodbye CEO: A new lens on ‘Ownership’ – By Leigh Swartz


Few could argue that today’s CEOs and managers, in both South Africa and abroad, are not under crippling pressure. Faced with a fast-changing and increasingly complex world of work, tighter margins, shifting demographics and a stagnant economy, even survival is a tall order. Many companies are achieving little to no growth, while others are simply falling into disarray and failing to deliver. In many corners, blame is placed on a perceived ‘talent shortage’ and lack of necessary skills, knowledge and expertise. Yet we believe that the underlying problem is, fundamentally, a leadership issue.

In today’s business environment, the traditional leadership structure – in which one, all-seeing, omnipotent leader exercises guidance and control over everything — simply doesn’t work anymore. The way in which business unfolds today – quickly, with unpredictable twists and turns, and with constant disruption from new technologies and nimble competitors – requires a more fluid and less hierarchical approach to leadership. Without this, companies can very quickly become paralysed, with essential functions grinding to an abrupt halt.

State-owned Eskom provides a case in point. With the company’s top management caught up in a murky battle, the company has all but come to a standstill…leaving the country potentially facing a very dark, cold winter.

As the Mail & Guardian reported, lower level managers have no power or scope to mitigate the pernicious effects of the leadership crisis.

“Everything is at a standstill,” a mid-level manager told the newspaper. “Nobody is willing to sign off anything because they know the bosses have been suspended, but they don’t know why and they’re not taking any chances. Nobody is making a decision.”

‘Distributed Authority’

The Eskom debacle has clearly demonstrated why companies need to embrace a new way of doing business. First and foremost, the approach to leadership needs to be radically different. As stated above, relying on one or a handful of key figures to dictate the business on a day-to-day level is not only outdated, but also downright risky.

Instead, savvy companies should be pursuing a model of ‘distributed authority’1. In essence, this would mean establishing a new set of ‘rules of the game’, which ‘bake empowerment into the core of the organisation – without relying on parental, heroic leaders.’

This speaks to the principles of Holocracy, defined by Wikipedia as ‘a social technology or system of organisational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy of self-organising teams rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy’. Examples of successful holocracies include the online retail giant Zappos and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’ Medium, a popular publishing platform.

From ‘Moses’ to ‘Multipliers…’

In addition, modern leadership should be characterised by the careful selection and development of ‘Multipliers’. Multipliers are leaders who leverage their knowledge and intelligence to ‘amplify’ the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. Author Liz Wiseman’s statistics revealed that ‘diminishers’ received 20 to 50 percent of the capability of their people, while multipliers ranged from 70 to 100 percent.

Multipliers are the people who inspire and motivate employees to ‘stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations.’ Multipliers understand and believe that intelligence grows through engagement, and that the collective is smarter and more powerful than the individual. Corporate juggernauts such as Nike, Oracle, Emirates Airlines, and the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) are embracing the concept of Multipliers to grow their businesses in the disruptive new world of work.

Dr. Darrell Kirch, President and CEO of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) explained his views on the idea to journalists, saying: “Instead of one leader with special knowledge to be the ‘sage at the top,’ we need Multipliers who unleash others’ full potential and create an atmosphere of genius. Leaders can address healthcare’s more-with-less dilemma by moving from Moses to Multipliers.”

Look to the Millennials…

Faced with these new concepts, while still mired in old and established hierarchical systems and structures, companies face a daunting challenge. Interestingly, however, many already possess a key asset that will enable them to make the shift to new leadership structures and a more fluid way of approaching business. This asset is the presence of Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) – and their growing influence on businesses and organisational culture.

Millennials place great importance on individualism and flexibility in their work. They seek to build up a portfolio of skills, and move organically between projects – never becoming stuck in one team or one department for too long. They are the main protagonists of what trend spotter Dion Chang has labeled the ‘Death of the King’: “the new work force don’t want to be king of the castle – it doesn’t allow for flexibility or flow,” explains Chang. Instead, he suggests that leaders start thinking of themselves as the centre of a circle with teams orbiting around them.

For companies to successfully transition out of the ‘Ownership’ era and into a new era characterised by efficiency and fluidity, they need to embrace the individuals who lead them into this new phase – while simultaneously loosening their grip on outdated operating models.


Leigh Swartz is a Director at Tuesday Consulting. For more information, visit or call 011 325 2797

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