Heroes and egos

The cult of the chief executive is alive in the public sector but while a head can inspire and drive success in a team its the longer term game that matters

The announcement that Steve Jobs is to step down as chief executive of Apple for health reasons had an immediate impact on share prices and has prompted discussion about whether it is good for a company to be so identified with one individual.

The so-called cult of the chief executive is also recognised in the public sector.

These are individuals who are credited with turning around failing organisations or for making mediocre organisations great. Some come in at a point of crisis work their magic and go on to bigger and greater things, others build over a good many years and go only reluctantly when retirement beckons.

Whichever type they are they present the problem of what happens when they leave. But how many chief executives are truly indispensable?

There are high profile chief executives like Barry Quirk at Lewisham council and the chief executives of the most improved authorities – according to the Audit Commission – like Martin Reeves at Coventry city council and Joanne Roney in Wakefield. There are also consistently top performing authorites like Kent county council, which lost popular chief executive Peter Gilroy last May.

While no one could argue about the achievements of these authorities, many would consider it a backhanded compliment to label their chief executives as "cult" figures.

I'm sure even Steve Jobs, credited as he is for making Apple a globally successful company, has a very competent team of senior managers beneath him and that Apple has some of the brightest and most innovative people in the industry working for them. So why is the stock exchange so nervous?

Put another way why does any successful organisation, service or team worry about the impact of a high-profile leader leaving unless they think what has been achieved is all down to that individual.

Some of this can be explained by natural anxiety along the lines of 'what if the replacement isn't any good or wants to change everything?' There may be a concern that some of the most able and experienced managers will see this as the time to go – their loyalty being to the individual not the organisation.

New chief executives (like new senior managers) want to surround themselves with their own appointments – people who think like them and don't keep referring to how things were done under the predecessor. So some closely associated with the old order may be encouraged to go.

There may be concern that these changes of key personnel will adversely affect the organisation, albeit in the short term.

It could be that the charismatic, high-profile and highly-regarded leader's achievements were down to their sheer force of personality – people at all levels in the organisation believed in this person and were prepared to go along with their vision and their decisions because they liked and respected them.

Nothing wrong with that you say, we want and need leaders who inspire their staff. Well in my view we don't.

This type of leadership may be very effective in a crisis but this "cult of the leader" is very damaging for an organisation in the longer term. To use a sporting analogy, this would be the difference between a great team and a great club. A great team goes a whole season without losing, a great club is one that has a succession of successful teams; even though the individuals change the philosophy behind it, the way the club is run doesn't change.

In organisational terms the culture is not 'follow the leader', the culture is based on a shared set of values, a shared vision of the future and an agreed way of doing things. This will not change even if the leader does.

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services for a large county council and author of Equipping Managers for an Uncertain Future, published by Russell House

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