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The Genius, The Conductor and The Bureaucrat

The classic Silicon Valley stories often feature what Jim Collins calls "the genius with a thousand helpers"

No, this is not a joke about three guys walking into a bar but the result of some recent musing about how the art of management is practiced in Silicon Valley.

The classic Silicon Valley stories often feature what Jim Collins calls "the genius with a thousand helpers" (from his book Good to Great). Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and many other valley icons were known for their vice-like control over all aspects of their business.

When that Genius individual really is the smartest person in the world, you get the iPhone. When they are not, you get Palm's WebOs. Working for a boss who always has to be the smartest man in the room is a humbling experience but at least you know where you stand - at the bottom.

The contrast to the Genius is the conductor, a person who - without playing an instrument themselves - is judged purely on their ability to draw great performances out of others. This is the idealized, servant CEO that is touted in all of the business school texts but seen much less frequently in the wild.

Examples of the Conductor style of leadership would include people like Paul Maritz of VMware. In my experience, there is nothing in the work world that beats the thrill of working with a committed team on big, hairy, audacious goals where the person leading the charge is focused purely on helping the team win.

The third category is the Bureaucrat. The thing to remember about Bureaucrats is that what they are best at producing is more Bureaucrats. These are people who are always overwhelmed with work but never make decisions that would offload that work. In a way, they follow the same model as the Genius, in that all decisions have to come through them.

The goal for all CEOs should be to aspire to play the Conductor role, while realizing that it is human nature to slip into Genius and Bureaucrat now and again.

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More Stories By Christopher Keene

Christopher Keene is Chairman and CEO of WaveMaker (formerly ActiveGrid). Chris was the founder, in 1991, of Persistence Software, a San Mateo, CA-based company that created a new approach for managing data in high-transaction banking and communications systems. Persistence Software investors included Cisco, Intel, Reuters and Sun Microsystems. The company went public in 1999 on the NASDAQ exchange and was sold in 2004 to Progress software.After leaving Persistence Software in 2005, Chris spent a year in France as chairman of Reportive Software, a Paris-based maker of business-intelligence tools, and as an adjunct professor and entrepreneur-in-residence at INSEAD, a leading graduate business school.