The following is an excerpt from Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right (reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review Press).
Why the Fixation on Great Men?
Human judgment, it appears, is frail and fettered no matter which humans the judgment comes from. Even the greatest of leaders can’t get out of the way of their own egos.
Neuroscience and behavioural economics now tell us that all humans fall into a common set of decision traps or cognitive biases—from, for example, anchoring (overreliance on familiar but irrele- vant information for a decision) to the zero-risk bias (a penchant to reduce a minor risk to nothing, but missing the opportunity to reduce propor- tionately instead a much bigger risk).
A recent article suggests that while leaders may be able to identify the cognitive biases in others’ decisions and recommendations, they have virtually no chance of seeing their own.
Yet no matter how many mistakes are made by individuals, the single leader and decision maker prevails as a paradigm. History still puts the “great man” (or, less common, the “great woman”) on a prominent pedes- tal. Management theorists still praise the solitary, heroic leader. Indeed, there’s a long philosophical tradition behind the “great man” theory.
Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century Scottish philosopher, began his 1840 book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, with these words:
We have undertaken to discourse here for a little on Great Men, their manner of appearance in our world’s business, how they have shaped themselves in the world’s history, what ideas men formed of them, what work they did.
Carlyle, who was known earlier in his career as a curmudgeonly and satirical writer, abandoned all pretense of satire when writing about Great Men (we’ll continue to capitalise the term in a somewhat satirical fashion). Later in the introduction to the book, he writes worshipfully:
One comfort is, that Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness;—in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.
Carlyle already sounds a bit nutty in his enthusiasm for Great Men, and this is only page 1 of his book. Indeed, Carlyle’s views increasingly diverged from those of polite society as he aged. He maintained that democracy was an impossible form of government, and that slavery should never have been abolished. Adolf Hitler found his biography of Frederick the Great (a generous gift from Joseph Goebbels) inspiring and comforting in his last days in the Berlin bunker.
Fortunately, most of Carlyle’s ideas have been left behind, but not the Great Man notion. It lives on in both theory and practice. That is, of course, because it is such a convenient fiction in some ways. In a society that depends on its members’ taking initiative and suffers when they indulge in free riding, it helps to hold up role models and dangle the incentive of fame and fortune for individual achievement. As David Ogilvy was fond of saying, “Search your parks in all your cities/You’ll find no stat- ues of committees.” There is no denying, too, that most would rather lis- 10 to a good yarn about a maverick taking on the world and beating the odds. As much as we might revere a studiously deliberative body—like the Supreme Court—there tends to be little romance in its triumphs.
Thus we see publishers shelling out huge advances to leaders willing to tell their tales—as GE’s former CEO Jack Welch did in Jack: Straight from the Gut and, more recently, George W. Bush did in Decision Points. But it isn’t only the public at large that hangs on such words; many a leadership scholar has written almost as worshipfully as Carlyle about the charismatic power and decision-making genius of great corporate and governmental leaders. One of the more tempered appreciations of leadership decision making is Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis’s Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, but still the focus is on famous CEOs and the approaches they personally embrace.
The leadership literature’s Great Man obsession might be harmless enough—the management equivalent of romance novels—if it were not for the fact that it fuels real disparities and painful disappointments in society. In the corporate realm, boards of directors, desperate to boost bottom lines, seize upon those few candidates whose track records suggest they are in possession of some fairy dust to sprinkle, and the ensuing bidding war pushes chief executives’ salaries sky-high. In 2010, the average CEO in the S&P 500 made $11.4 million in total compensation—343 times the median income for workers in all occupations.14 Modern-day CEO perks often exceed Frederick the Great’s—they have aeroplanes, limousines, security forces, massive expense accounts, and large retinues at their disposal. This despite the fact that, in many cases, the fairy dust never materialises.
And in government, while we don’t pay our Great Men so much, we continue to believe—despite much evidence to the contrary—that they are the solution to all the world’s (or at least the country’s) problems. We devote an increasing amount of attention to them in presidential campaigns. We ascribe (at least if they represent our party and political beliefs) heroic traits to them. We hold them accountable for realising all our dreams and aspirations, for finding us jobs and making our house prices increase. Like the image dreamed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the reality on the ground is not as impressive:
Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image,
whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form
thereof was terrible.
This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his
belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31–33)
The Antidote to the Great Man Theory
We offer this book as an antidote for, and even the counter to, the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance. We view no individual man or woman as uniquely and solely responsible for won- derful outcomes; CEOs, political leaders, visionary thinkers, like all of us too, are living examples of at least occasional human frailty in thought and deed. Even the best leaders sometimes make bad decisions; the worst make them frequently, and perhaps one or more that can bring down previously massive and hugely successful organisations.
Instead of Great Men, we’ll preach the virtues of Great organisations— organisations that build the ongoing capability to make great decisions again and again, reflecting the judgment to more consistently than not make “great calls” in difficult situations. Great organisations expand the number of people involved in important decisions, because they know that while individual humans are fallible, in the aggregate they are usually more effective. They tap into their employees’ (and customers’ and partners’) broad range of expertise, and they ask for their opinions; they deliberate and problem-solve toward a better answer, instead of “going with the gut.” They also employ data and analysis to make decisions, because they know that on the whole, the scientific method is the single best guide to deci- sions and actions the world has ever known. They employ sound decision- making processes, including investigating multiple alternatives, seeking out dissent, and fostering a decision culture of inquiry rather than advo- cacy. In short, they become effective decision machines in which Great Men aren’t necessary or desired, at least in the sense of dictating an answer “just because s/he’s the boss.”
When such organisations employ these approaches on an ongoing basis, we call it good organizational judgment.
Of course, leaders are still important (though perhaps not 343 times more important as the average worker, as today’s salary scales imply). Good leaders create the agenda of decisions to be made. They set the tone for cul- ture and decision processes. They encourage the diverse members of their organisations to step up and participate in deliberations and decisions. We are not dismissive of leadership and leaders in this book at all, but we think they have a new set of roles to play. The Great Man (or Woman) of the future knows the role of the great leader is not to decide important ques- tions alone—but rather to ensure that all the right things happen across their organisations so that the best thinking and the best problem solving results in a better answer.
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.