The recent, often VC-driven "cult of the CEO" suggests that for a company to succeed, the leader must define a clear direction for their organisation and communicate it clearly to their staff. And yet, many world-beating organisations do no such thing. Universities, to take an extreme example, barely have a leader at all and the line management is pretty much non-existent. One part of the organisation will have little, if any, understanding of the working of the others and there is no cross-pollination of ideas.
Similarly, the Professional Services firms. They typically have a 'dyad' of Chairperson and Managing Partner (the names change) and then many complex, intermeshed and highly politicised teams of individuals. The necessity for compromise leads to inertia but also to stability.
To put the success of these organisations in perspective, The Big Four advisory companies were all founded over 170 years ago and our local big-hitting university, Oxford, was founded in 1096. They clearly have a robust, flexible and world-class management structure; these 'dysfunctional' organisations are in fact highly successful.
Leaders in universities and professional services do not lead in the conventional sense, but they do provide the infrastructure that enables the brilliant people in the organisation to perform at the top of their game.
For a university, the academics are provided with a lovely physical working environment, often amazing technology to work with and a brand. In professional services it is pretty much the same. The key question then is how to provide the infrastructure that can be used by staff to promote their aims, without unduly centralising those efforts and therefore killing all the golden geese.
One aspect of that, as Professor Laura Empson discusses in the video below, is how do you create structures so that you can get "Leadership as a Process, rather than as a quality that an individual possesses."
In the latest episode of Cass Talks, Cass Business School Professor Laura Empson discusses her new research on leadership dynamics in professional service firms.