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As Dorsey leaves Twitter, what impact does a CEO have?

The decision by the boss of Twitter to call time on his CEO role raises questions about the value of leadership

Very few people can have missed the announcement in November that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had resigned his position and would leave the company’s board next year.

Dorsey has been there since the start. In fact, he sent the first ever tweet – “just setting up my twttr” – in March 2006, a tweet which he sold as a non-fungible token (NFT) for $2.9m in March this year, with the proceeds going to GiveDirectly’s Africa charity fund.

What will happen to Twitter now he has left? It’s a question everyone with any business interest in the platform is likely to be asking of the company and Dorseys successor, chief technology officer (CTO) Parag Agarawal, over the coming days, weeks and months.

What was interesting to me about his departure was something he wrote in his letter on Twitter: “There’s a lot of talk about the importance of a company being ‘founder-led’. Ultimately, I believe that’s severely limiting and a single point of failure. I’ve worked hard to ensure this company can break away from its founding and founders.”

First of all, he’s right that there is a notion attached to some companies that they’re only as good as their founders. There comes a point for many businesses where they “outgrow” their creator. But a lot of times they can struggle from growing pains because they have not evolved to be able to operate as effectively when the creator is no longer the godlike genius he or she may have been in the early days.

Sometimes, they fail to make a complete break from their creator and end up falling backwards, bringing him or her back on board.

There’s also an implicit belief that founders are inspirational and vision-led, qualities which stand them in good stead when it comes to creating and growing a company in the early stages – but perhaps not so useful later on.

Steps to success

Anyway, by fortuitous coincidence, Dorsey’s resignation was followed a few days later by a survey of over 500 UK CEOs by ECI Partners for its Growth characteristics report.

As part of the survey, ECI asked the CEOs to rate what they believed were the most important qualities for successful business leaders. I don’t know about you, but I thought the results would be skewed heavily in favour of traits such as inspirational, decisive, enthusiastic and vision-led.

I was wrong. The bottom four qualities were, in descending order, spontaneous (11%), enthusiastic (8%), inspirational (8%) and decisive (6%). As for being a visionary, that came sixth overall, with 15%.

The top four most important characteristics for business leaders – according to business leaders, let’s not forget, rather than advertisers or marketers – were being realistic (25%), logical (24%), loyal (19%) and a problem solver (18%). The vision thing even came behind being empathetic (16%).

What does this mean? Well, if you put the top five qualities together, you end up with someone who runs the company but doesn’t overshadow it. And someone who, provided their replacement also has those characteristics, can be smoothly replaced without detriment to the company (or country, for that matter).

Despite the understandable desire to elevate inspirational, visionary, maverick leaders because they are so much more interesting and entertaining, it can make things much harder for the company (or country) they lead when they leave or are toppled. It’s much easier for companies and countries to survive and prosper after a change in leadership if they are not overshadowed by their leaders.

The vast majority of Twitter users had no idea who Dorsey was. Now, they have no idea who he is. If it stays that way, his resignation will have been a success.

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