The cult of the chief executive

The majority of chief executives are not value for money. In a strict HR sense they do not add sufficient extra value to cover their cost. In some...

The majority of chief executives are not value for money. In a strict HR sense they do not add sufficient extra value to cover their cost. In some organizations the remuneration and staff support costs of the ‘leadership team’ outweigh the investment in operatives. Too many chiefs indeed and no-one to do the work except to write reports for the leaders and respond to the leaders ‘visions’.

In my long experience I have many times been involved in executive recruitment where I have said lets employ 4 operative workers instead of this deputy chief executive or 6 instead of this CEO and been met with incredulity. Yet 4 operatives working at 50% (say) of the value adding productivity of a good CEO makes……you work it out.

I know that teams can organize themselves, that management especially executive management gets in the way of good work more often than actively encouraging it. Most executives say No more often than Yes. We hear about the exceptional leaders in business media not the run of the mill conservatives.

There are good examples of No Boss enterprise , Suma, Rainbow, the hundreds of ‘recovered factories’ in Argentina and other collective style worker cooperatives. Circle hospitals use the motto ‘ no matter how clever are your executives, the brainpower of your workers is greater’ and so they delegate most management to ward level.

Dr Paul Thomas ‘ the business doctor’ encourages private and public sector workers to sack their bosses and co-organize their work effectively. Once they get over their inhibitions, his clients seem to love the experience of self-organization.
Ricardo Semler famously sacked the entire executive management of his company Semco and re-energized the business ( see his classic book Maverick) by forcing his workers to organize themselves. Baxi in its worker owned phase had eliminated executive management by vertically integrated work teams (but crucially didn’t do away with the CEO role and it was a ‘ mistake’ by the CEO that lost them the business).

Old cults die hard. Even though we promise ourselves ‘We won’t get fooled again’ (1960s Who). Even though we prize Autonomy above all else at work (once the hygiene factors of money and security are satisfied) (modern motivation research) we seem to crave the comfort of a chief. Hierarchy is a superficial defence against uncertainty and the need for us to act into an unknown future but it’s an addictive and costly tranquilizer.

We place too much faith in our leaders and then denigrate them when daddy fails to live up to our unreasonable expectations instead of having a mature co-responsible relationship with them. We choose charismatic actors and are disappointed when they cannot write the play for us (Blair?).

This is much more than simply fat cats defending their privilege though that is definitely a factor. We would see through that self interest.
Organizations which have no privilege hierarchy, like worker cooperatives recreate poor copies of executive leadership management. It arises spontaneously. It meets a deep need.

There are surprisingly few critical studies of the cult of leadership. One academic who encourages pragmatic debate is Ralph Stacey. In ‘Complexity and the Experience of Leading Organizations’, Douglas Griffin and Ralph Stacey examine where this ideology comes from and allow CEOs to describe how even their attempts to introduce participative management were met with opposition by staff, the same staff who feared them when they were behaving ‘as expected’.

Stacey has a process and relationship based management theory which could be the answer to our self imposed executive prison.

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