What You Can Learn from Two California Bellwether Leaders

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I posted a variation of this article on LinkedIn last week.

Ever wonder what a bellwether is? It’s a sheep. More specifically, a wether is a castrated male, equipped with a bell, leading the flock.

In modern parlance people refer to “bellwether states,” and California has long been known as America’s bellwether state. It has led the way in sexual and religious tolerance, environmentalism, entertainment, nutritional trends and awareness, and most recently, of course, in technology, innovation, and start-ups.

Two of its more dramatic personalities have long been bellwethers, and are now demonstrating a new kind of bellwether activity. Here’s a little of their prior history.

 

Marc Benioff is one of the most famous of California’s human bellwethers. Just over 20 years ago, Benioff founded Salesforce. He is widely credited with leading the movement of software from a physical product to a cloud-based service. He has helped redefine the purpose and responsibility of a business through his 1-1-1 policy:  Salesforce contributes 1% of its product, 1% of its equity and 1% of its employee hours to the communities in which it does business. Benioff has taken criticism for his outsized ego, which some see reflected in the Salesforce tower (pictured above), which dominates the SF skyline.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is a less well-known name. Like Benioff, she is a native Californian. After earning degrees from Stanford and working in developing countries she trained as an actress and appeared on various TV shows, including Mad Men and Numb3rs. A true bellwether, she moved from acting to directing, producing highly acclaimed documentaries including Miss Representation. Her energy must be extraordinary, for she’s also given birth to and is raising four children with her husband, Governor Gavin Newsom.

In their newly announced ventures, Newsom and Benioff are not leading as solitary heroes, but their trail blazing exemplifies the value they find in what John Gillis and I call “leading by two.”

Benioff was not the first to name a Co-CEO, but his elevation of Keith Block in August and the way he did it were truly bellwether material. For one thing, Benioff is such a huge figure at Salesforce, that conventional wisdom has led to all type of fretting about whether he’s acting with prudence in sharing his power and authority with a co-CEO.  A recent Fortune article expresses the conventional resistance to leading by two, pointing out how only twenty-three of Fortune 500 companies have formally named co-CEO’s in the past three decades. Bellwethers like Benioff challenge such herd instinct! He points to one of the major requirements we have found in our research on great pairs:  Commitment.  He told Fortune that he and Block have “really grown to be great partners. We wanted to cement that, so we’ve exchanged our vows and now we’re co-CEOs.”

“We’ve exchanged our vows!” From the beginning of time, leading by two has been the gold standard for families, initiated by the vows of a couple to subjugate their individual needs and commit to a shared greater good. Yet business commentators and practitioners remain enamored with the solitary leader and largely blind to the power of leading by two. As I’ve been arguing: Look again at the power of leading by two.

 

Jennifer Newsom was presented at the California inaugural as the Governor’s First . .. Partner! Not First Lady. As she told an LA Times reporter during the campaign, “I see that we complement and support each other, and I’m obviously a thought partner of his — and the main thought partner.” (Italics added.) She chose the title, in large part, to bring attention to gender equity. We’ll see if her choice of a title gains a following among other first ladies and gentlemen. Unquestionably, this bell-ewe (the female sheep) is challenging convention, declaring this is a partnership.

In the pastures, the bellwether sheep was obviously not alone, but led with a shepherd. Benioff and Newsom lead with their partners. They, like the hundreds of co-founders across Silicon Valley, understand that 1 + 1 = 3. And we should all pay heed. What’s holding you back from sharing vows, elevating a colleague – in practice or even in title?

I recently began work with a new client. Their organization is at an inflection point, re-envisioning, refocusing and rethinking their leadership structure.  One of the leaders knocked me out of my chair last month when she shared her mindset about an impending partnership.  She said of her top colleague, “I could work for her, with her, or she could report to me.  It wouldn’t matter at all.”  If you’re wondering how you could lead with the power of LX2, ask yourself if you have that spirit of humility, trust and openness. And if you have the power in the partnership, consider making a conscious proposal and exchanging vows to lead by two,

Unleashing your and their best self.