In Spain, Italy: Surviving a Void

Two European countries faced turmoil when their leaders departed. How organizations can avoid the same headaches.



It isn’t something one would expect to see, two major European nations without leaders at the same time. But that’s where Italy and Spain found themselves last week—and where a surprising number of companies find themselves as well. 

For those who missed the headlines, Italy went three months without a majority government, until two major parties finally agreed last Friday on a new prime minister. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles west, Spain’s government collapsed after the prime minister was unseated in a no-confidence vote, and experts wonder how long the new government will last. But as unnerving as this can be, leadership vacuums are of course not limited to politics. Indeed, from abrupt CEO departures to boardroom succession battles, such voids are becoming more common and troubling. 

The best way to reduce any turmoil, experts say, is for the institution, government, or otherwise to set up a clear vision well before any leadership change occurs, a sense of purpose that employees can fall back on in times of crisis. Indeed, the “purpose” movement that defines companies’ social intentions—and that has become so in vogue lately—could be a critical plus to have. 

“If there is a compelling and clear enough purpose for the organization, then that can be enough to tide people over until the next leader gets appointed,” says Kirsta Anderson, Korn Ferry’s global solutions leader for Culture Transformation. When each member of the team is committed to the organization’s vision, then they will continue working toward that goal, even when there is no boss. Such a thing is achieved more easily in a smaller organization. “With start-ups, they do have a super clear idea of what they want to achieve,” she says. And when everyone knows what needs to be done, they do it, even without a rigid hierarchy in place.

A flatter organizational structure also helps. The bigger the company, the more likely it is to have a hierarchy, of course. But even then, if the organization is staffed with a disciplined workforce then it can survive without a leader for a while. It’s akin to a large orchestra, says Ivo Pezzuto, professor of global economics, strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship at the ISTUD business school in Milan. If the musicians are well-trained and organized then the conductor is a nice-to-have complement, not an absolute necessity, Pezzuto says. Ideally, even when the leader is absent, all the training kicks in and everyone performs in the desired way. 

“The problem comes when the ecosystem doesn’t work smoothly, and there is also no leader as well,” he says. That’s the problem with Italy, which has a large debt load, a plodding economy, and tensions over immigration. Spain’s economy is doing better than Italy’s, but unemployment remains high, and the prime minister’s allies were recently implicated in a corruption scandal. 

The Italian economy isn’t working well for everyone. In short, there is the pro-European Union contingent that has done well economically, while another group is hurting because of the lack of jobs, resulting in a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the free-trade bloc. “The latter just want jobs,” says Pezzuto. What’s needed? In Italy’s case, someone who can take the two disparate views of the world and form a single vision that can unite the people, he says.