Weinstein, Murdoch, Kalanick: The Perils Of The Powerful Lone Leader — And A Glimpse Of Another Way

The buzz from last Sunday’s Golden Globes – an audience dressed in black, #MeToo pins, Oprah’s speech – has already sent a powerful message of leadership change reverberating around the world. People who have spent decades in an exploitation machine are finally speaking out and being heard. And at the center of all the latest Hollywood lights, cameras, and action are leadership lessons that should get us all paying close attention. What can we learn not just from the recent fall of film producer Harvey Weinstein but from the latest parade of fallen leaders across multiple sectors and industries?

Well, for starters, sexual harassment and assault by men in powerful leadership positions is not just a failure of their individual character and ethics; it’s a failure of the leadership models that empower them. By all accounts, Weinstein is a huge slimeball – at best. At a very basic level, however, his abuses kept occurring because no one felt they could tell him to stop. In other words, his company, Miramax, placed too much value on the centralized power of its leader. The same basic faults can be seen in, for example, the overinflated power bestowed on an artistic leader like Peter Martins, who was essentially granted immunity from any consequences for abusing subordinates at the New York City Ballet.

But there are even broader leadership lessons to be gleaned from recent examples of the “all-powerful lone leader” model gone awry. Take, for example, shakeups in succession. Rupert Murdoch’s decision to sell his global media empire to Disney, instead of the planned transfer to his sons, reflects “founder’s syndrome” – another manifestation of how the centralized solo leadership model can break down over time. If the founder holds on to his top-down leadership position with white knuckles for too long, it can become nearly impossible to pass the torch.

The forced resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is a damaging example of the broad set of liabilities – government regulation scandals, claims of misrepresentation of earnings to investors, IP violation lawsuits, and sexual harassment and discrimination allegations – that can be brought on by an overwhelmingly centralized, lone leader. One of the unexpected lessons of the “Weinstein effect” may be the necessity of shining a light on the many liabilities, among them sexual harassment and misconduct, associated with the all-powerful solo leadership model.

Because of the ubiquity of this type of top-down leadership, no sector or type of organization is immune. From environmental nonprofits to mega-churches to transportation companies, this leadership model gets locked and loaded at the top of the house through a similar process. One person (usually a man, but not necessarily) with a domineering and impulsive personality (which is not always obvious) is authorized to make major decisions that affect employees and subordinates, and often a whole organization, without equally powerful checks and balances in place. While the dangers to the company are limitless – and fairly self-evident – this model is still pervasive, if not dominant.

So what are the leadership alternatives for companies that want to avoid the liabilities associated with this model?

Balancing Power At The Top
Bay Area–based Revolution Foods has taken on the ambitious task of replacing less-than-healthy and unappetizing school lunches across the U.S. with healthier, tastier and kid-inspired meals. But the company is also taking on unhealthy leadership models with its unique partnership at the top.

Revolution Foods co-founder Kirsten Tobey met Kristin Richmond at Haas Business School in Berkeley. She attributes a lot of their success to the relationship that she and Richmond developed early on. Every business needs strong and aligned leadership, but Tobey describes their bond as a different level of commitment. “We looked across the table at each other,” said Tobey. The commitment in Tobey’s words was: “We got into this together and we’re going to stick through, and it will be like a marriage.”

Tobey said they had a firm understanding at the beginning about roles: “Kristin is an amazing CEO and team leader; I did more of the internal work around our operational model and our nutritional model and our HR.” The alignment allowed both women to operate at their highest level. “We’ve crafted our roles in a way that capitalizes on our strength and balances our weaknesses with each other,” said Tobey. “That’s made for a really strong partnership.”

Very few companies will be led by people who had the chance to develop a similarly close relationship before forming the organization. But each can take away something else from Revolution Foods’s partnership model, in which two equally powerful leaders with complementary strengths and roles are in charge. That is, the partnership model promotes integrative thinking: both leaders must constantly bring together diverse ideas and opinions and generate new, innovative solutions. Likewise, having two leaders creates an inherent check against developing a faulty leadership mindset. But alternative leadership models also have three other primary benefits.

Redundancy To Be Prepared For The Unexpected
One expectation of the centralized, solo leader is that he will have unlimited, uninterrupted time to spend on the company. In the real world, most people need more flexibility. Families, for example, add a certain amount of additional work and unanticipated factors into the equation.

In the case of Revolution Foods, Tobey and Richmond’s relationship has always had important flexibility. Since both women are moms, they knew going in that they would need to be able to cover for each other. Just as spouses may have to switch roles temporarily, Tobey and Richmond can take over each other’s role when necessary. Tobey describes this attribute as having “mobility.” Their partnership builds redundancy into their leadership roles, which allows them to be ready for the unexpected in their professional and personal lives.

Accountability For Ethical Decision-making And Behavior
Opower, a software company sold to Oracle in 2016, was co-founded in 2007 by partners Alex Laskey and Dan Yates, who also developed a successful unconventional leadership model. The two had been friends for years, but had always worked separately. Laskey describes the beginning of their partnership this way: “Dan approached me and said, ‘We ought to do something together to have a positive impact on the environment. You care about this. I am now impassioned about this as well. And I think we’d make a good team.’”

The purpose-driven leaders focused on more than the environment. In 2015, when Silicon Valley tech firms went public with their low gender and racial diversity numbers, Laskey and Yates rolled up their sleeves to solve the problem in their company. They conducted unconscious bias training across the company and put programs in place programs to promote high performing women and racial minorities. From 2015 to 2016, they increased female hires from 40% to 47% and minority technical hires from 1.5% to 11% numbers far above industry average. Laskey attributes their ethical approach to solving their diversity problem, instead of ignoring and shelving it, to their shared sense of accountability for achieving their mission and values.

Adaptability For Leadership Succession From The Start
Method Products was co-founded in 2000 by Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan, who came from different but complementary professional backgrounds. Lowry, trained as a climate scientist, described their partnership as “high design and big sustainability coming together.” While they have similar philosophies of leadership, their day-to-day leadership styles are quite different.

In 2012 Ecover acquired Method Products, which together became People Against Dirty, the largest green cleaning company in the world with revenues of over $200 million at the time. In 2017, SC Johnson purchased Ecover and Method. Because they built adaptability into their partnership from the beginning, co-founders Lowry and Ryan have been able to change and adapt their leadership roles with each critical transition of their company.

To be sure, these three examples of successful co-founder partnerships are not traditional organizations with the same size and stature as the numerous corporations and nonprofits featured in the media recently for being led astray by all-powerful, lone leaders. But the key element to draw from these examples is that in each one, the leadership partners have equal power and complementary roles. More than ever before, it’s critical for organizations today to consider new models, like strong partnerships, across sectors and industries, and build resilience into the model of power at the top. This way, leadership can’t be toppled by a single bad actor.

This article was originally published on my new leadership column for Forbes. To read future articles about how business leaders can embrace and solve global challenges through innovation, follow me on ForbesTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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