The Value Of A "Leadership Molecule"™ In A Crisis

LOS ANGELES - June 11, 2020 - PRLog -- This article examines the value of a "Leadership Molecule"™during a time of crisis. Our concept of the Leadership Molecule™ was the product of an "accidental discovery" as part of an organizational development initiative.

Origins of "the Leadership Molecule"™

In 1994, I was asked to do coaching with the senior three people who were leading Starbucks: Howard Schultz, founder and CEO, Howard Behar, SVP of operations, and Orin Smith, CFO.  In brief, I would visit Starbucks in Seattle and do individual coaching for each individual and then work with the three as a team. As Orin Smith stated in his initial phone call, "We have Tiger by the tail and only once chance to get this right.  This thing is growing very rapidly and we are all under great pressure individually and as a management team."  They were looking for someone to coach each individually and help them smooth out some wrinkles as a team.  Smith had read the third edition of our book, Growing Pains, ( and fell that Starbucks was a classic of what we described in that book.

Over the next few years, I worked with Starbucks and this leadership team to help position them for sustainable successful growth.   And then I moved on to working with other companies facing similar issues.  One of my strong impressions was how well the Big 3 at Starbucks ended up working together. They became a true team, not merely a team in the nominal sense of the word. Each had his own defined sphere of responsibility but they worked together formally and informally.

The Flash of Recognition

A few years later as I was working with another company in a different market space (financial services) I observed that they had a very strong core senior leadership team that (like Starbucks) seemed to work very well as a true leadership team. They seemed also like a "molecule," or compound that was a unit.

That moment of recognition led me to think about various companies with which I had worked in Organizational Development.  It seemed to me that where this leadership unit existed the there was also high performance, and where it did not exist performance was not so good or even great problems.

The Construct and Hypothesis

That flash of recognition led me to formulate what I now term a "Leadership Molecule" construct and related hypothesis. This construct has now been formulated and studied empirically. Stated briefly, a Leadership Molecule is a core "team" ("group" or unit), including a two person dyad) that cohesively performs a set of five key functional of strategic leadership as a unit rather than as a set of individuals.  These functions are:

1.   Creating the vision,

2.   Defining and managing culture,

3.   Coordinating operations,

4.   Overseeing systems development, and

5.   Leading and managing innovation and change.

It is a "core leadership team" (in true sociological sense) with defined but overlapping and complementary roles. Typically the roles of vision, culture, operations, and overseeing systems development, are performed by one or more individuals comprising the molecule, while the fifth task of strategic leadership (leading and managing innovation and change) is performed as a collective team, as shown schematically in the overlapping three circle picture a the top of this article.

The Leadership Molecule ™

Vision & Culture



Formation of the Leadership Molecule™

A team can either pass through these stages by (accidental) "natural evolution" or by design through team building activities. Team building can help accelerate the process of creating the molecule. For example, I helped create this Leadership Molecule ™ at Starbucks (without calling it that or thinking of it in those terms) through role definitions and team building activities.

"signature" of a leadership Molecule's Existence

A "marker" or signature of the existence of such a molecule is typically (but not always) that an organization has assigned a "nickname" or label to the molecule, such as:

·       "H2O" and "H2O2 (at Starbucks)

·       "The three Musketeers," (at PacifiCare)

·       Batman and Robin (Steve Jobs and John Scully at Apple)

Also where the molecule is seen as negative, dysfunctional or even toxic by the organization at large, it can receive a nickname with negative connotations or overtones, such as:

·       "Gang of Four," and

·       "The Ghost and the Darkness:" (Dyad)

The absence so a nickname is not conclusive evidence that a molecule does not exist, but it is suggestive. However, the nickname is a "marker" or "DNA" signature for a true leadership molecule (team).

THE VALUE OF A Leadership Molecule

My published empirical research has indicated that any organization that has a Leadership Molecule™ possesses a valuable if intangible asset. Specifically, I was invited by Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China to participate in their CEO leadership program, and coach CEOs of forty leading Chinese companies for one year. As part of that program, I designed a survey to assess the extent to which a Leadership Molecule existed in companies, and empirically studied the extent to which the existence of the Leadership Molecule was associated with varying degrees of Organizational Development, using measures that have been show to link to financial performance.  The results indicated that companies where a leadership molecule exists has superior financial performance than those where it did not exist.


A Leadership Molecule™ is an asset that hidden in plain sight, recognized by all inside the company but not susceptible to copying by competitors.  It results in superior financial performance than in companies where it did not exist, as for example in companies where the leader is a "one-man (or woman) show!

I believe that the ultimate test of the value of a leadership molecule occurs when an organization is in crisis. During a crisis the single person leader will be stressed and stretched it his or her limit. However, a leadership molecule functions as a team, and provides not only better decisions but also social and psychological support for each other.

Developing A Leadership Molecule

Where a leadership molecule does not exist, it can be developed with the proper ingredients and process, as shown in the example of Starbucks during its early days described above.

For more information on The Leadership Molecule or Dr. Eric Flamholtz's frameworks, visit or email

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