Today, it's harder than ever before for one man or woman to have such complete control of the reins of power. Ownership is widespread. Corporate governance has taken a strong hold over boardroom actions.
But if you know where you want to go, and want to get there fast, there's nothing like a strong leader to help you do it.
Take the winners of the main two categories in Euromoney's Awards for Excellence 2005. Emilio Botín is the third generation of his family to run Santander. In less than 20 years as chairman, he's taken it from an unknown Cantabrian minnow to one of the world's top 10 banks by market capitalization.
Botín's critics and like all successful people, he has many would say he still runs the firm almost as a family business, even though his actual ownership of the firm is now minuscule.
But if you meet him you realize that his commitment to Santander is total, in a way that a mere employee could never match. This gives Botín the energy, even today in his eighth decade, to break new ground in banking with the purchase of Abbey, an acquisition that looks to have finally opened the floodgates to cross-border banking takeovers in Europe. Santander is a worthy recipient of Euromoney's best bank award.
Just over a decade ago, Lehman Brothers was spun off from American Express. For most of the 1990s, the majority of observers wondered how it could stay competitive or independent in the face of larger, more established rivals.
But its management, led by Dick Fuld, stayed true to the vision that they had for the firm. They locked in their best talent with lucrative, stock-based compensation schemes. They promoted from within.
Now Lehman Euromoney's investment bank of the year is reaping the benefits. It has a culture that, given its relative youth, is remarkably the envy of many of the older names on Wall Street. It is building market share in areas such as M&A and equities that the accepted wisdom said it had no chance of breaking into.
Contrast that with Citigroup. Over 15 years Sandy Weill constructed the financial supermarket that, by the turn of the decade, had every other financial institution trembling with fear and awe.
What happened next? Perhaps Weill got stuck on the acquisition treadmill. While pursuing his grand visions, he did not realize he was building an unmanageable machine. By the time he stepped aside, the wheels had started to come off.
Citigroup is still a fantastic institution. It wins more of our Awards for Excellence around the world than any other firm. But today it is less than the sum of its parts. Chuck Prince desperately needs to show he has the leadership skills to make the numbers add up again.
For Botín and Fuld, the greatest challenge, that of handing over to the next generation, still lies ahead.