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In a world of complexity and collaboration, our model of leadership remains fixated on one person as boss.

Shouldn’t grappling with complexity have nudged us into having two or three people at the top, collaborating closely? Couldn’t we make that concept work, given modern technology and knowledge of psychology and emotional intelligence?

But we essentially remain frozen.

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“Let’s face it – the dominant model for over 5,000 years of human history is a single leader at the top. Whether it’s tribes, kingdoms, armies, empires or corporations, having a single individual at the pinnacle of any organization chart is embedded in the human experience across time and across cultures,” consultant Bob Frisch wrote in 2012, as Research in Motion was unravelling and co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis resigned.

Mr. Frisch argued that any form of documenting responsibility within organizations eventually places accountability in the hands of a single individual. But he is not pointing to something innate – just custom. Ironically, for a strategist telling corporations they must continually change, he is – probably like most of you reading – clutching to a habit, whose supremacy over co-leaders is unproven.

Half a century ago, we similarly understood the family to need one person to rule – the patriarch. These days in Canada, we know that families can be headed by one or two people, regardless of gender, jointly making decisions, even under the pressure of clever kids trying to manipulate them to an extent far beyond what a CEO usually faces from subordinates.

I became interested in this issue when the German Green Party in the 1980s started experimenting with several leaders, going against the political norm. I had been co-president of a national organization and that had worked fabulously – a partner to fret with together, bounce ideas off and make decisions, and so much quicker when two of us set out to spread a message than one person.

It was small potatoes, in terms of organization size, but intriguing. I noticed that for all the myths about the brilliant, solo entrepreneur, often they work in pairs. Bill Gates and Paul Allen, then Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, who were not small potatoes. Nor was Google, with Larry Page and Sergei Brin at the helm for many years together. Steve Jobs, for all his exasperating tendencies – or perhaps because of them – usually had a partner; at the end he and chief designer Jony Ive drove Apple.

And, of course, Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis. Mr. Fritsch used their resignations to announce that the co-CEO model was “officially dead” (that was missed at Oracle, which in 2014 named Mark Hurd and Safra Catz co-CEOs, and they are still in co-command). When things got tough, the RIM co-CEOs fumbled the strategic choices, Mr. Fritsch argued, as if no single CEO has ever fumbled strategic choices. Maybe they did better, for longer, in a tough industry because the company had “two in a box” at the top, as the phrase goes.

There are few corporate examples of co-CEOs, and usually those occur at earlier stages of the business. They often evolve, perhaps with one of them remaining CEO and the other being head of product development or marketing, either as equals or no longer.

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Teaming but with inequality is a different model from what I am suggesting here, but still similar – sharing the burden in a complicated, collaborative world. In Co-leaders, Warren Bennis and David A. Heenan looked at “great partnerships” such as the “two Bobs” at GM, chairman Bob Eaton and his long-time president Bob Lutz; Stanford basketball coaches Tara VanDerveer and Amy Tucker; Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy; and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It’s not all in business, obviously, but it’s suggestive that partnerships are part of human life. Mr. Bennis and Mr. Heenan contended that co-leadership “is a tough-minded strategy that will unleash the hidden talent in any enterprise.” Both must be able to subordinate ego to attain a common goal.

Universities, increasingly, are moving to a duo – the principal handling external affairs, fundraising and dealing with governments, while the provost runs the internal affairs at the institution. The Quebec Solidaire political party has a tradition of female and male co-spokespersons, currently Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. Alternative models exist if we stop insisting on one leader, which may be an ancient model for less complex times.

Cannonballs

  • In the past 35 years, about half of the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine have gone to scientific partnerships, The New Yorker reports. François Jacob, who, with Jacques Monod, pioneered the study of gene regulation, said: “Two are better than one for dreaming up theories and constructing models. For with two minds working on a problem, ideas fly thicker and faster. They are bounced from partner to partner. They are grafted onto each other, like branches on a tree. And in the process, illusions are sooner nipped in the bud.” Business models as well?
  • Leadership trainer Dan Rockwell says you can learn something about leadership by the use of pronouns in this comment from George H. W. Bush during an NBC interview: “I think history will point out some of the things I did wrong and perhaps some of the things we did right."  
  • Improve your hiring by looking inside rather than outside, says recruitment specialist John Sullivan. To prepare people, spend time moving them around through rotations for development and job shadowing.  

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