Brook Manville on the Decline of the “Heroic Leader” Model

So often when people think of the title "CEO," it conjures up a mental picture of an aging bearded man in a pristine business suit or a hotshot kid with a zillion-dollar idea. They might be wildly different on the outside, but what they have in common is the notion of absolute power: Their decisions are the law of the land and they know better than everyone else because they started this company, dagnabbit.

Well, that notion has quietly been going away over the years, something that's been documented by co-authors Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville, who recently released the book Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right. In it, the pair dissect success stories of companies that adopted what's called collaborative decision making. The philosophy is exactly what it sounds like, and it might not come easily to some leaders. To find out more about this and how it works, I gave Manville, a former Northwestern history professor and current independent consultant working largely with nonprofits, a call.

When did you start to see this trend of collaborative decision making emerge?

Brook Manville: It's been going for some time and there's some longer term trends, David, about organizations becoming flatter, taking more advantage of network, working on different aspects of culture to make them more engaging for employees and more collaborative team-based kind of work and that kind of thing. So, I think that's kind of been in the air for a while. We tend to connect it to the so-called knowledge revolution or the shift towards more services and intangibles as the source of value, which others have written about as well. We started to bring that trend and the thinking to the question more narrowly of decision making and how do you get better decisions. There are a number of case examples both known through the literature but also we've identified some more current ones where good decisions were really made thanks to that more collaborative approach or more democratic approach to tapping the wisdom of others, if you like.

There's also a parallel revolution going on, which people talk about as "big data," or analytics, which is tapping into the technology delivered to data-driven decision making. We saw that as an important trend as well.

So, we pulled those pieces together and then we went looking for some good examples rather than bad examples. That was another twist in our book. A lot of books about decision making focus on the mistakes. We said, "Instead of just tsk-tsking about they should've done this, they should've done that, let's get prescriptive-based on good decisions." So we went looking for some case studies where there had been a decision that really worked out well and then worked backwards from that and said, "Okay, when they make a good decision, particularly of this kind that's more collaborative or team-based, what does it really mean to be a leader in that kind of environment?"

Since you don't go into it in your book, what are some "bad" instances of collaborative decision making?

Brook Manville: The easy ones to talk about are where one person, one man, one woman -- one man, frankly -- wants his way and insists on it and it leads to catastrophe. But engaging others and getting expert advice, if it's not done in a thoughtful and disciplined way, it can also be bad. The real problem in that latter situation is when people try to get "the consensus." That's a classic mistake people make. The notion that consensus is better than a unilateral decision in all cases. Well, consensus is not always the right answer. Sometimes it brings you down to the lowest common denominator. You make a decision that nobody will disagree with but it's not really long-term a good decision. So, fighting against the lowest common denominator problem of consensus in the negative sense is one problem.

Another is not having enough of a balanced perspective. It's good to get opposing views from experts. It's good to debate a question. It's good to bring data. But leaders can still manipulate that or they can end up with the answer they always wanted by asking for certain kinds of data, and it looks like it's a collaborative, deliberative decision, but it's really a faux collaborative decision. So that's another problem that sometimes crops up.

Are there any industries or sectors, you think, where maybe they shouldn't be doing this sort of decision making?

Brook Manville: We didn't rigorously ask that question or study it, but my guess is it's not so much an industry-by-industry choice but rather a kind of decision choice. Not all decisions necessarily need to go through this deliberative, extended kind of process. Sometimes there just isn't time for that. Or, in some cases, a decision may not be of the magnitude that requires that. We're not saying that every single decision anybody makes in the course of the day needs to have debate, deliberation and fact-based analytical tools. So there's a segmentation that any leader needs to think about: Are we going to meet on the fifth floor as opposed to the fourth floor? What are we having for lunch? I'm being flip about it, but not all things are worth of ginning up the whole machinery of it. But, airing on the side of at least asking the question, "Is this a decision where we need to put a bigger team effort into it?" is always a good exercise. And it's not just that you'll get a better answer, but part of a better answer is that by involving people who have to implement the decision, you're much more likely to get the realities of implementation, the details coming forward that's hard to imagine if you don't have to be on the hook for it. Second of all, they're more motivated, more engaged because they've literally been part of the decision. So, that's the positive side. Back to your question, I don't think it's banking should do it and retail shouldn't. I think it's more the kind of decision that would lead you to pull this trigger or not.

In the areas where it's a good philosophy do you use, what sort of decisions do you think employees don't need to be involved in? I know we talked flippantly about it, but a little bit more practically speaking, what comes to mind?

Brook Manville: Well, one of the debates that is a fair debate is about the question of creativity or innovation. For example, Steve Jobs is often held up as the person who had the golden gut. He never wanted to design a product by committee. Fashion designers, the stories about The Gap and women's fashion houses, there was a brilliant person who had a particular vision that only one person could have come up with -- I think there's some merit in that. I think creativity sometimes does spring from one person more than a group, but even in those cases, and I'm not an expert on Apple, but I would say that even in those cases there's a lot of other decisions that have to go with bringing that creativity to market, managing the risk of bringing it to market in certain ways. Learning from the market, if the first design doesn't quite work out, to refine it and approve it. So, I think it's a lot of shades of gray. I don't think there's an either/or. Although, I think there are some decisions either because they're relatively small or they're relatively urgent or there isn't the time. Or, where there's some true pace-setting creativity that needs more a visionary than a group. Those are all cases where maybe you want to be a little more cautious about using the full-blown deliberative process. But even in those cases you may want to wrap some of the better decision-making processes around those to implement them or operationalize them.

You mentioned gender can also play a role in this, which reminds me of the whole playground rules thing where girls are more likely to share than boys.

Brook Manville: On the one hand, there's certain generalizations and truisms that people resonate with. That women tend to be more collaborative or they tend to be less insistent on having their own way or whatnot. But on the other hand you don't want to cast a group with a stereotype. [Laughs.] There are some terrifically collaborative men and some very idiosyncratic and hard-headed women.

Well, the data suggests what the data suggests. And there are always exceptions.

Brook Manville: I think one of the measures of good decision making is that there's always some kind of diversity. It's not just gender diversity, although I think that can often be part of. Diversity of background. Diversity of experience. Expertise comes from combining what different people with different backgrounds and different orientations know and testing and counter-testing a decision against those filters.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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