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Michael Useem

Michael Useem

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Step up or step aside

Q: The ongoing privacy controversy at Facebook raises the familiar dilemma of what to do when fast-growing startups threaten to outgrow the management abilities of creative young founders. The Google guys got kudos for bringing in industry veteran Eric Schmidt as CEO, but things didn't work out as well when Pepsi's John Sculley took the reins from a young Steve Jobs at Apple. What's the leadership wisdom here?

Some who are called to lead in new ways have risen to the occasion. Others have properly stepped aside.

Consider a moment of decision for Union General George Meade during the Civil War. On June 28, 1863, he commanded a corps of some 10,000 soldiers in the Army of the Potomac as it pursued the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during its move northward toward Pennsylvania.

A federal courier arrived at Meade's corps headquarters near Frederick, Maryland, at 3 a.m. "I thought that it was either to relieve or arrest me," Meade later reported, but the courier's message from President Abraham Lincoln instead ordered Meade to take command of the entire Army of the Potomac, a force of 95,000.

Meade fully embraced his promotion into a far larger game. Just three days later near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Meade's Army of the Potomac's engaged and then defeated the Confederate Army, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. Meade's victory at Gettysburg offered compelling evidence that some can successfully move up to a far more demanding and complex leadership calling.

Creative young company founders have sometimes done just that, rising to ever greater leadership responsibilities without faltering as their firms have prospered. Frederick Smith founded Federal Express in 1971 - and he still runs it today with 280,000 employees.

Others have opted instead to hand over responsibility to seasoned managers, as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar gave to Margaret Whitman in 1998, and as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page gave to Eric Schmidt in 2001.

Here's the leadership wisdom for a creative young founder: If you believe that you can master the next levels of leadership demands and complexity, embrace them, as both Meade and Smith have proven can be done. But if you are ambivalent about your capacity - or taste - for ever rising responsibilities, stay engaged but get out of corner office.

Omidyar remained to serve as eBay's non-executive chair with Whitman as CEO, and Brin and Page remained to run Google's products and technology under Schmidt's leadership. Like FedEx but with very different leadership solutions, both eBay and Google have continued to prosper well after their founding.

By Michael Useem

 |  June 8, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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