MOVIES USE iconic stars for cameo roles just to notch up their box office appeal. They are designated in the billing as having a special role — he will be playing himself. Ceremonial appearances too have a place in an organization.

Titles like chairman (or co-chairman) or senior adviser are designed to justify inclusion of a distinguished personality as part of an organization. Holders of familiar titles with undefined responsibilities and unstated authorities may be important for status and respectability they bring to the enterprise. They help raise the organization’s profile and status. Holders of ceremonial titles can even make pronouncements that project authority as they define the company’s direction in vague sweeping statements — We are launching a new beginning.

The term “figurehead” originally referred to the carving on the prow of a ship that serves as its distinguishing mark and symbol. It is the part of the ship against which the champagne bottle is smashed in the christening process. While this carved symbol leads the ship forward simply by being positioned in front, it has nothing to do with steering the ship’s course.

The figurehead in an organization refers to a person with an exalted title but possessing little authority or responsibility. Being at the prow of the ship is a matter of location that has nothing to do with control. Still, the figurehead can be the face of the enterprise.

No one, least of all the subject himself, attaches the designation of “figurehead” to the designated position holder, except perhaps behind his back. Is it because there is something derogatory in being powerless in a seemingly powerful position?

It is not always easy for outsiders to determine if the person with a fancy title even has the authority to give away calling cards. Usually, he has a small allocation. Courtesy visitors from abroad routinely make calls on the figurehead. They can be forgiven the blunder of leaving proposals of strategic partnerships and capital investments with this titular titan. He flips through the pages of the report and assures his visitors that “he will evaluate this proposal” as he ushers the latter out the door. He then sends the document on its way to the real decision points.

Why are figureheads even recruited if they are not expected to do anything affecting the corporate ship’s course?

Such ceremonial leaders are venerable and wizened personages who may have retired from a major position that actually wielded real authority of life and death in a previous incarnation. Or they may have been languishing in irrelevancy in another exalted position.

Figureheads report for work regularly. They sign checks and contracts already negotiated and reviewed by the real powers, cut ribbons for new plants, and take out courtesy callers to dinner.

The second-in-command in the country may turn into a figurehead stripped of a real portfolio and not allowed to sit in on important meetings. She can keep busy making speeches on nutrition and human rights in NGO events and international forums, dutifully noted in the inside pages of newspapers. By some freak of fate, such an almost forgotten public figure may be challenged to accept another figurehead position with a higher profile. The expectations of success are low even as her media profile is exponentially raised.

Make-believe positions (MBP) are not to be confused with the figurehead counterpart. The former has to do with ambiguous jobs in business development or corporate culture with no specific targets. These are characterized by the need to call several meetings a day and request reports from busy people doing real work like servicing clients. The MBP Head is the emperor with no clothes. He walks the halls confidently, dreading that question from the uninformed — What do you really do?

Nobody asks the Figurehead what he does. He chairs meetings. He doesn’t give orders. While his title reveals nothing, it also requires no explanation. Like the figure carved on the prow, the figurehead can feel the ship moving without his help. He understands when a journey has begun or ended.

The figurehead doesn’t need to know where his ship is headed. He doesn’t even blink when it hits the rocks with a loud splintering sound. He understands that he himself is now safely ashore… and headed for retirement.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.