Soloists Make Lousy Conductors . . .

Dec. 21, 2004
. . and even worse chief executives.

In the 1780s, the new nation called the United States was foundering. Tariffs between the states were bigger than those between European countries. The economy was seriously impaired. Benjamin Franklin was having a pint or two with Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson. The subject of their conversation turned into a friendly discussion over which was the oldest profession. Rush, a physician, insisted that his was the oldest profession. "You see, it must have been a brilliant surgeon who made Eve out of Adams rib." But Jefferson, who built Monticello, said, "No, its architecture. After all, who but an architect could build system and style into the chaos." Then Franklin replied, "Youre both wrong; its politics. After all, who do you think created the chaos?" We business editors are direct descendants of Ben Franklin, and, were he alive today, he would admit that we, too, deserve some of the blame for creating the chaos. It seems that some of us have inherited a gene that gives us a propensity for hyperbole. We tend to make superstars out of ordinary people by giving them much more credit than they deserve for their publicized successes. Take these headlines from some of todays best business publications:

  • "Andy Grove -- How Intel Makes Spending Pay Off: Intels CEO bets billions on R&D and new plants."
  • "Steve Jobs Next Big Gamble: The legendary entrepreneur aims to survive by transforming the hardware maker into a major player in software that runs on other companies computers."
  • "Can Larry Beat Bill? Oracle CEO Larry Ellisons goal: To conquer Microsoft on the I-way."
  • "Tough Guy: Larry Bossidy demands -- and gets -- growth at AlliedSignal."
Now, while Im ready to accept the idea that each of those companies made -- or will make -- significant changes under their respective CEOs, Im not ready to concede that whatever success they enjoy was achieved by the single-handed contributions of the CEO in developing the strategies or in implementing them. Or that the CEOs achieved success by demanding it. Or that the CEOs accomplished their goals without significant support and buy-in from their associates. The deification of the CEOs in these articles makes one wonder if all the current writing and evangelistic preaching about empowerment, participatory organizations, and team problem-solving is pure hokum. It also leads one to the flawed conclusion that all a company needs to do to be successful is to hire a Gen. George Patton without the pearl-handled pistols. The myth: "A strong-willed, hard-driving chief executive who orders things done gets things done." Hogwash. Most successful CEOs achieve their goals because they surround themselves with highly talented people who help develop corporate strategies. Then they articulate those strategies in clear understandable terms in such a way that those with the ability to implement them do so effectively, because they believe in those strategies and not because they were ordered to. Oh, sure, once in a while a CEO can swing the two-by-four and attain a degree of success. And sometimes a CEO can get some success from scaring the bejabbers out of his or her managers and employees. But top sergeants rarely succeed as CEOs. And Lone Rangers dont make it either, even with a legion of Tontos. They are far more likely to be invited to a corporate guillotine party. Being an effective CEO requires leadership, not dictatorship, because it takes more than a CEO to develop effective corporate strategies and a company-wide effort to implement them successfully. Ive never known a CEO who was so omnipotent or omniscient that he or she could grow a company into a major organization by unilateral decision-making and lone-eagle action. Nor have I ever met a truly successful CEO who didnt remind me more of Johnny Appleseed than Attila the Hun. An egocentric CEO I know was awarded a citation by an industry magazine, a sop intended to curry his favor. He was highly flattered and prepared an acceptance speech in which he made numerous references to his dominant role in his companys success. In places where he expected to receive applause, he wrote in the word "applause." The speech was later reproduced in the company publication (at the CEOs request) and distributed to all employees and stockholders. It was a slam-bang hit. In all the places where he had written the word "applause," it had mysteriously been changed to "applesauce." Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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