Sunday, July 6, 2008

The pervasiveness of complementary leadership

By: Miles, Stephen A., Watkins, Michael D.,
Harvard Business Review,
April 2007, Vol. 85, Issue 4

The limitations of people's information-processing capacity, which are well documented, make it impossible for one individual to manage a large and complex enterprise. Bruce Chizen, CEO of the software and technology company Adobe Systems, says of his own position, "The job is simply too big for any one person." Bringing together two or more people with complementary strengths not only compensates for the shortcomings of each but also results in a team in which the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Complementary leadership generally manifests itself in four ways.

One familiar split assigns one leader (usually the CEO) the job of managing the external environment, while her counterpart (often the COO) concentrates on internal management issues.

A second fairly clear-cut division of responsibilities is expertise complementarity. For example, Chizen, Adobe's CEO, has a background in sales and marketing, and Shantanu Narayen, the company's president and COO, came up through the engineering and product ranks.

A third, less sharply delineated type of synergy –what we call cognitive complementarity – involves differences in how individuals process information.

Finally, leaders often play discrete and complementary social roles in organizations – a phenomenon we call role complementarity. One person can rarely assume more than one social role; it is difficult, for example, for a leader to be both feared and loved.

Stephen A. Miles ( is an Atlanta-based managing partner in the Leadership Consulting Practice of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles and a coauthor of "Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer" (HBR May 2006).

Michael D. Watkins (, based in Newton, Massachusetts, is a partner in the leadership development consultancy Genesis Advisers and the author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels (Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

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