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Behind Every Great CEO

Shedding light on a spouse's role in the business

The spouses of CEOs are often invisible in family businesses. Yet recent studies suggest they play a key role in succession and continuity efforts. My own study, built on structured conversations with more than 100 CEOs and their spouses, bore this out. Over and over, in seldom-recognized ways, these spouses are central to developing the relationship between the owners and employees.

The lack of visibility of the spouses—mostly women—had little bearing on their influence. Overall, I found they assume different leadership functions depending on their particular relationship with the CEO and their knowledge of the business. Regardless of the role they played, CEO spouses repeatedly described themselves as being stewards of the family legacy, keeping "family" in the family business, and embodying a spirit of cooperation and unconditional support. I also found that three dominant leadership types emerged.