Bilateral leadership: why it happens, the damage it can cause and what you can do about it

There’s a strategy review coming up that has implications for the whole company. The entire executive team rightly believes that they should be in the heart of that conversation. The trouble is, they’re not.

The CEO has got into the habit of picking off one or two trusted lieutenants to make the decisions, bypassing the exec, resulting in silos and a dysfunctional leadership team. It’s called bilateral leadership – sometimes also known as leading via the hub and spoke – and I’ve regularly seen examples of the long-term damage it can do to organisations.

So why does it happen and how can leaders make sure they don’t fall victim?

Bilateral leadership is often a symptom of an inexperienced CEO. They come into a job with high expectations and pressure to succeed in their head and, quite naturally, feel that it is inefficient and a waste of the exec’s time to have to constantly consult on the big issues like a culture shift or M&A decision; after all, the CEO has been appointed as CEO and it is “my accountability to deliver”.

Insecure CEO

Sometimes it might just be that a CEO is insecure, whether new into the role or not, or perhaps uncertain about the quality of input they would get from involving the whole team. They may think that it diminishes their role by consulting the exec, or thinking that they might not get the decision they want if they open up the issue for wider debate.

The impact of this approach however has far reaching consequences for the business. The exec team feels left out, less involved and, over time, becomes disillusioned. This has a cascade effect down throughout the organisation, creating silos and a disconnect between employees and leadership.

Shift of behaviour

To prevent bilateral leadership becoming an unwelcome feature, the CEO needs to manage executive team meetings so that they become less transactional and more a forum for open and honest discussion. This requires a shift of behaviour from a CEO if they’re not used to running meetings where everyone is encouraged to both contribute and challenge.

The best CEOs are those who have the confidence to allow this culture to grow and who are happy for the exec, as a team, to reach decisions on issues that might not tally with their initial conclusions.

It’s not just up to the CEO either, this approach requires members of the leadership team to dial up their exec role over their functional role and to challenge their peers on cross-functional areas like culture and strategy. For many of course, this is not a natural place to be and some will feel uncomfortable which means it can take time to establish this way of working. But ultimately, it’s a powerful investment in the organisation’s leadership that will save time in the long term for both the CEO and the exec team.

Banish the star chamber

It’s an old adage that the best CEOs should actively recruit people into leadership roles who are ‘better’ than them. It only makes sense then that they utilise that ability and empower their leaders by working with them collaboratively when it comes to taking the big decisions that will shape the company’s future, rather than depending on the more limited counsel of a secretive and exclusive star chamber.

How do you consult and work with your exec team? Are you a collaborator – empowering and placing trust in your team – or are you a big wheel bolted to the hub and spoke approach?