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Soundview Executive Book SummariesLeaders hear "yes" far too often. They don't hear bad news until it's too late. They get groupthink, not reality. They think they've achieved consensus, then find their decisions undermined by colleagues who never really bought in. It's an enormous problem: for leaders, teams and organizations. But is it inevitable? No.
In Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer, Harvard Business School's Michael Roberto shows readers how to stimulate honest, constructive dissent; use it to improve decisions; then align their entire organization behind those decisions. Drawing on extensive research, Roberto shows how to promote candor, leverage an organization's wisdom, and build consensus that leads to effective action. He also presents examples from history while exploring how real organizations make real decisions, as well as how the decision process unfolds throughout the organization - not just in the executive suite. Along the way, the five myths of executive decision making are explored to help readers understand why these myths are so dangerous and how they can be overcome.
The Leadership Challenge
In February 2003, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated while returning to Earth. In 1996, two of the world's most accomplished mountaineers and three of their clients died on Mount Everest's slopes during the deadliest day in the mountain's history. In 1961, Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs with U.S. support, and Castro's military captured or killed nearly all of them.
Catastrophic failure always brings forth troubling questions. Why didn't NASA managers act when they discovered a potentially serious danger? Why did the mountaineers ignore their own safety rules? Why did JFK support a rebel invasion despite clear evidence it would fail?
We want to learn from others' mistakes. But our misconceptions about decision making make it difficult to learn the right lessons. We envision a leader or team members sitting in a room making a fateful decision. We rush to fault their analysis, question their acumen, and doubt their motives. Yet, when it comes to strategic decision making, these differences seldom distinguish success from failure.
Strategic decision making is a dynamic process that unfolds over time, in fits and starts, and flows across multiple levels of an organization. Social, political and emotional forces play an enormous role. While cognitive decision-making tasks may prove challenging for many leaders, the socio-emotional component is often their Achilles heel.
Decision Quality and Implementation Effectiveness
Leaders must select the right action and mobilize the organization to implement it effectively. Thus, success is a function of both decision quality and implementation effectiveness. A leader's ability to navigate through the personality clashes, politics and social pressures of the decision process often determines both of these.
Few managers have mastered these dynamics. Consider the dialogue within many organizations: Candor, conflict and debate are often conspicuously absent during decision making. Managers feel uncomfortable dissenting. Groups converge quickly on one solution. Critical assumptions remain untested. Creative alternatives never surface. Leaders hear "yes" too often, or hear nothing when people mean "no." Their organizations don't just make poor choices: They may leave unethical choices unchallenged.
Of course, conflict alone isn't enough: Leaders must also build consensus. Consensus doesn't mean unanimity on all facets of a decision. Nor does it mean surrendering leadership. It does mean people will cooperate in implementation, even if they're not fully satisfied with the decision.
Consensus requires strong commitment to the chosen action, and strong, shared understanding of its rationale. Commitment helps prevent opponents from derailing implementation. It promotes perseverance in the face of obstacles. Common understanding of the decision rationale helps individuals coordinate and act in the "spirit" of the decision. Conversely, commitment without deep understanding can amount to "blind devotion." Individuals may dedicate themselves to implementation, but work at cross-purposes because they understand the decision differently.
Unfortunately, if executives engage in vigorous debate during the decision process, people may walk away dissatisfied with the outcome, disgruntled with colleagues, and less dedicated to implementation. The goal of leaders must be to foster conflict to enhance decision quality while simultaneously building the consensus needed for effective implementation. Copyright © 2006 Soundview Executive Book Summaries