The Dark Side of Leadership

ana-round-finalSAP recently announced that it would be disbanding its joint leadership – as had Oracle, Deutsche Bank, Salesforce and others before them. Immediately following this announcement, the co-CEO model was declared to be dead. The crux of the matter wasn’t the model itself, though, but rather our idea of what a (co)-CEO should be.

The surprise was great when SAP announced that co-CEO Jennifer Morgan would be leaving the company, which would continue with Christian Klein alone at the helm. This came just two months after Jennifer Morgan had stated that no one would ever drive them apart. Baden-Württemberg and Pennsylvania – the workplaces of Klein and Morgan – seemed to have overcome all distances, literally as well as figuratively.

The coronavirus crisis “requires companies to take swift, determined action which is best supported by a very clear leadership structure,” according to the official press release published by the German software company. Without wanting to analyse this statement in detail, it certainly begs the question of whether “determined action” should also be the preferred operating method when not in the midst of a crisis. The indication that the co-leadership is ending “earlier than planned” also implies that it may have been a half-hearted experiment with an expiration date.

What a CEO should (not) be

Since the announcement, the media and the industry have been speculating on the true reasons for Jennifer Morgan’s departure. There’s talk of “old boys’ networks” and setting the wrong priorities – and also that Morgan may have “failed” because she is a woman. As varied as these half-baked speculations are, they all seem to agree on one point: The co-CEO model is dead. After all, SAP is not the first company to have failed spectacularly – in terms of the interest from the media – with it. Others before it includes Oracle, Salesforce, Deutsche Bank and Whole Foods.

The crux of the matter isn’t the model itself, though, but rather our idea of leadership and what a (co-)CEO should be: an infallible jack of all trades. Willing to take risks, focused on performance, assertive, charismatic and visionary. If one looks at Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, for example – undoubtedly two of the most successful CEOs at present – one would think, yes, that’s true. At the same time, though, one must concede:

Yes. But.

Management research has shown that people in leadership positions have higher incidences of narcissism, psychopathic tendencies and Machiavellianism (the “dark triad”) than “normal” workers. And that’s where our but comes in: The “positive” characteristics mentioned above are, at least in the uncompromising manner in which they are sought, often only one side of the coin. On the flipside are egocentrism, manipulation, inconsiderateness and opportunism. Characteristics that are at odds with cooperation.

Humans, not cogs in a wheel

Perhaps in view of this, it is time to rethink our idea of a “successful” (co-)CEO. For us to recognize that leaders should also be allowed to be fallible. That they aren’t cogs in a wheel but are humans, made of flesh and blood. If we are unable to accept this, then we shouldn’t be surprised next time there is an upset in the co-CEO model – and we should remember that there is a flipside to the coin.


Gerald Klump and I were also driven by these ideas of how we should be at the beginning of our time as co-CEOs a year and a half ago. It was not easy for us to admit when we, too, were uncertain. Or when we couldn’t do something perfectly due to private concerns – and in my case, like many others, due to having to juggle work and taking care of kids. We wanted to be productive, decisive and brave at all times – as theory and practise demand it.

At some point, though, we recognized that we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. That we are also only human.

And maybe that’s the trick.

Topics: Essay