Harvard Business Online

Leadership Isn't Infallibility


Posted on Practically Radical: November 23, 2009 4:53 PM

The Economist owes much of its popularity to its knack for challenging conventional wisdom. In a recent column, it applied its contrarian mindset to the question of what kinds of leaders make the best CEOs, making the case that what the world needs now are more "raging egomaniacs" and "tightly wound empire-builders" rather than the "faceless" and "anonymous" bosses running so many companies today—"bland and boring men and women who can hardly get themselves noticed at cocktail parties."

The crux of The Economist's argument relies on what's known as the Great Man Theory of History. After trumpeting the virtues of business geniuses such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Lou Gerstner, and Jack Welch, it then generalizes from this handful of larger-than-life moguls: "The best ambassadors for business are the outsize figures who have changed the world and who feel no need to apologise for themselves or their calling."

It's an intriguing essay and a good read. It's also a false choice—and a bad reading of history. For one thing, when it comes to larger-than-life CEOs, I can name as many scoundrels and failures as I can geniuses and world-changers. There's a reason Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind titled their bestseller on the Enron disaster The Smartest Guys in the Room, and it goes beyond the criminality those deeply flawed executives displayed. That familiar phrase captures the mindset too many of us expect even our most honest leaders to display—the assumption that being "in charge" means having all the answers. In simpler times, fierce personal confidence, a sense of infallibility as a leader, might have been be a calling card of success. Today it is a warning sign of failure, whether from bad judgment, low morale among disillusioned colleagues, or sheer burnout from the pressures of always having to be right.

That's not a case (and here's the false choice) for aiming low or being dull. The best executives I've met understand that there is a vast difference between advancing big, exciting, important goals—aspiring to change the game in your field—and assuming that you know best how to achieve those goals. Sure, great leaders champion new ideas and disruptive points of view—they have vision. But that doesn't mean they have to see the future on their own.

Just because you're in charge doesn't mean you have to have all the answers. Real business geniuses don't pretend they know everything.

To be sure, it's easier to divide leaders into either-or categories: risk-takers vs. bureaucrats, those with ambition vs. those with humility. Fortune just named Steve Jobs its CEO of the Decade—and while it's hard to argue with the choice, it's even harder to reproduce his talents. The problem with trumpeting the virtues of one-of-a-kind geniuses like Steve Jobs is that—duh—there is only one of them! Memo to The Economist: It's not a good idea to urge CEOs to emulate leaders whose success is, almost by definition, impossible to copy.

Keith Sawyer, a creativity guru at Washington University in St. Louis, has literally written the book on where good ideas come from. In Group Genius, he explains how few leaders are prepared to recognize the messy and hard-to-manage truth about the real logic of business success. Many (perhaps most) executives subscribe to what Sawyer calls script-think—"the tendency to think that events are more predictable than they really are." In fact, he says, "Innovation emerges from the bottom up, unpredictably and improvisationally, and it's often only after the innovation has occurred that everyone realizes what's happened. The paradox is that innovation can't be planned, it can't be predicted; it has to be allowed to emerge."

Harriet Rubin, one of the great innovators in business-book publishing, and an accomplished author in her own right, uses different language to make a similar point about leadership and innovation. "Freedom is actually a bigger game than power," she reminds executives who are eager to make their mark in the world. "Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash."

The most effective leaders no longer want the job of solving their organization's biggest problems or identifying its best opportunities on their own. Instead, they recognize that the most powerful ideas can come from the most unexpected places: the quiet genius buried deep inside the organization, the collective genius that surrounds the organization, the hidden genius of customers, suppliers, and other constituencies who would be eager to share what they know if only they were asked. For companies, and the CEOs at their helms, those are the smartest (and most sustainable) sources of greatness.
William C. Taylor is an agenda-setting thinker, writer, and entrepreneur. His new book, Mavericks at Work, has been a New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestseller. As cofounder of Fast Company, he launched a magazine that earned a passionate following among executives and entrepreneurs. He is an adjunct professor at Babson College and a former associate editor of Harvard Business Review.

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