BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

The trailblazing corporate superstar will become a thing of the past. And follow-the-leader is a game companies will no longer play. The path to success will be paved by teams

We are all angels with only one wing.
We can only fly while embracing each other.

-- Luciano de Crescenzo

The 20th century Italian poet's metaphor wasn't about the 21st century corporation, but it might as well have been. The coming century will be unfriendly to superhero ceos who try to wing their companies heavenward by sheer force of will. Success will belong to companies that are leaderless--or, to be more precise, companies whose leadership is so widely shared that they resemble beehives, ant colonies, or schools of fish.

Today, democratic decision-making in corporations is still confined largely to factory floors and new-product laboratories, far from the top of organizational pyramids. That is hardly surprising. In a nation that loves superheroes, people cling to the myth of what management guru Warren Bennis calls ''the triumphant individual.'' The media celebrate ceos as larger-than-life individuals who single-handedly communicate a vision and lead the way, earning millions for themselves in the process.

Cool the hero worship. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union collapsed because its command-and-control economy couldn't keep up with the West's free market. In the 21st century, the same fate will befall companies whose CEOs attempt to control everything. In a world that is becoming ever more chaotic and dependent on brainpower, teams at the top will make more sense than a single outrageously paid CEO who sits behind a ''buck stops here'' plaque.

To see why, look to nature. You might assume a leaderless group of creatures would be ineffectual. Not at all. While one bee is merely a nuisance, a swarm is deadly. ''You only have to look at biological systems to see that there are no big hierarchical stacks,'' says Peter Cochrane, head of research at BT Labs. ''Everything is low and flat, very adaptable and very cruel.''

The Internet allows companies to be more like beehives because information can be shared horizontally rather than funneled up to the CEO's office and back down again. ''The nature of the process that built the Internet will inform everything that touches it. There's nobody in charge,'' says John Jordan, director of electronic commerce at Ernst & Young's Center for Business Innovation.

The beauty of such leveling is that decisions can be made instantly by the people best equipped to make them. Might that produce corporate chaos? Sure. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Uniform thinking enforced from the top can cripple an organization. Silicon Valley knows that well: When programmers try to debug a piece of software, they intentionally isolate themselves from their neighbors so they won't duplicate each other's mistakes. Says E&Y's Jordan: ''When you debug, it's really good not to have the same assumptions and system as the guy next to you.''

LOSING GROUND. In the 20th century, succeeding was like climbing the Rocky Mountains. It wasn't easy, but the path was obvious. Success was a matter of executing on a well-established business plan: Every step up brought you closer to the top. ''Now, it turns out that the Rocky Mountains are fluid and moving,'' says BT's Cochrane. ''One minute you're at the top, next you're in a valley.''

Team leadership is ideally suited for this new reality. When the landscape is changing daily, it's crucial to react fast--something bureaucratic, top-down organizations don't do well. ''Most urgent projects require the coordinated contributions of many talented people working together. Whether the task is building a global business or discovering the mysteries of the human brain, it does not happen at the top,'' says Bennis, a University of Southern California professor and co-author of Organizing Genius.

Already, many companies are adopting work groups with no designated leader. In 1987, 28% of the largest 1,000 public companies boasted at least some self-directed groups. By 1996, 78% had some, according to research by Edward E. Lawlor III, head of USC's Center for Effective Organizations. The trend will only intensify as a generation of team-oriented managers climbs higher. Says Lawlor: ''I can see future generations of people getting to the top with more team experience--and being more willing to use it once they get there.''

Some companies have already gotten a jump on the process. Even General Electric Co.'s take-charge CEO Jack Welch makes many decisions collegially with a team of top executives. ''I couldn't do this job if I didn't have them,'' admits Welch. Says John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems Inc.: ''I learned a long time ago that a team will always defeat an individual. And if you have a team of superstars, then you have a chance to create a dynasty.'' That's one reason Chambers has two to three times as many people reporting to him as does the average executive in his company: It forces him to empower those directly under him with greater autonomy, because he can't possibly keep up with every detail of their work.

In the 21st century, the all-powerful CEO may not be powerful at all. Companies that thrive will be ''led'' by people who understand that in business, as in nature, no one person can ever really be in control.

By JOHN A. BYRNE

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