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We don’t need another hero CEO

Quiet managers who foster teamwork produce better results than blustery leaders.

Here’s a paradox. The need to build and foster collaborative teams has become a kind of organizational holy grail. And yet the mania for seeing organizational leaders as either all-conquering heroes or unabashed villains continues unabated.

Our celebrity-obsessed popular culture is partially to blame. But the persistence of the hero-CEO meme in both business journalism and scholarship owes its staying power to a distinctive tradition. For decades, experts have viewed leaders and managers as fundamentally different breeds, with leaders being the clear alphas.

In a recent Financial Times column, Herminia Ibarra traces the leader– manager divide back to Abraham Zaleznik, an influential Harvard Business School professor who was also a psychoanalyst. In the 1970s, Zaleznik proposed that leaders and managers were different sorts of people. Leaders thrive on risk, think long term, dislike structure, and inspire either fierce devotion or profound loathing. By contrast, mild-mannered managers seek order, value process and efficiency, and emphasize planning.

John Kotter gave flesh to these contrasting types in his 1980 HBS case study of two Xerox managers, “Fred” and “Renn.” Kotter’s vividly detailed day-in-the-life scenario cast these archetypes in stone, while also making clear that being a leader was preferable to being a manager. The former were simply bolder, braver, and more influential. The typology is so entrenched that there are few more cutting comments one can make about someone’s leadership style than to say he or she is “just a manager.”

In the 1990s, endless business magazine cover stories exalted the CEO/leader as a risk-tasking visionary upon whose personal qualities and mystique the whole success or failure of an enterprise entirely depended: “Jack Welch’s GE” or “Andy Grove’s Intel.” And today, there is a great tendency to lionize the business executives whose organizations are enjoying extraordinary success (such as Elon Musk of Tesla or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook) and to vilify those whose organizations have run into trouble (such as Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos). Our wildly ambivalent attitude toward Steve Jobs –– Is he a hero or a villain? Should we hate him for his troubling personal qualities or worship him as a genius? –– is emblematic of our need to separate the black hats from the white hats while identifying one person as the embodiment of an entire organization.

In fact, an organization’s ability to thrive depends more on its culture than on any single leader. And culture is shaped by people at every level, as well as by traditions, history, processes and, yes, by how it is managed. What’s more, cultures are increasingly shaped by the teams that develop and market products and make the continual, often process-based incremental improvements that offer an advantage in a fiercely competitive global marketplace.

An organization’s ability to thrive depends more on its culture than on any single leader.    

In the mid-1990s, when Andy-Grove-Is-Intel cover stories blanketed the newsstands, I was working on a study of Intel Inside, a marketing innovation that transformed the company’s customer base. Previously, individuals and businesses buying PCs purchased a Compaq, Dell, or Gateway without being aware of the origin of the microprocessor that comprised its essence. As competitors began reverse engineering chips, Intel faced a need to de-   commodify its key product. Working together, a trademark legal team and a marketing team came up with the notion of developing a campaign to raise customer awareness regarding the manufacturer of “the brains of the computer.” Doing so, they reasoned, would create direct demand for Intel products.

The Intel Inside campaign changed the way people buy computers and transformed the company’s strategic position. But it didn’t begin as a bolt of inspirational C-suite leadership. Rather, it stemmed from a collaborative managerial effort between two relatively obscure internal teams who were seeking a solution to a persistent marketplace challenge.

Such unsung collaborative efforts often form the basis for incremental or process improvements that create success over time. Think of Lockheed Martin’s classic Skunk Works team, which developed some of the company’s most successful and innovative aircraft, or the IBM team at Boca Raton that figured out how to build a personal computer while the company’s leadership was focusing on the mainframe.

To be sure, such initiatives would have floundered without top-level support. But a leader’s ultimate success depends on groups of people at many different levels bringing their specific expertise on products, processes, and customers to bear in the service of continual improvements and innovations that can be tested.

When Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, applied the company’s algorithmic skill to understanding its own talent, he found that those who flourish at Google have collaborative skills, work well in teams, and are adaptable, able to step forward and take leadership when the situation calls for it and step back and follow when appropriate. Such qualities were far more predictive of success at Google than prior academic achievement or having held positional leadership roles.

Bock noted that Google’s strategic dependence on continual innovation put a premium on the need for collaboration and teamwork rather than traditional hotshot criteria. And his observation makes clear why our continued faith in the leader–manager distinction is so retrograde. The confluence of globalized markets and digital technology has created an organizational environment in which continual innovation is the chief prerequisite for survival. And collaborative teams in which people use their diverse perspectives and kinds of expertise to solve specific problems have emerged as the most fruitful instruments for organizing ongoing innovation.

It is noteworthy that Abraham Zaleznik, the progenitor of the leader–manager distinction, saw leaders as a more lofty species of being in part because mere managers facilitated collaboration. As Herminia Ibarra notes, Zaleznik viewed collaboration as stifling “the aggressiveness and initiative that fuel leadership.” Collaborative teams, in his hyperindividualistic formulation, were a symptom of softness and mediocrity. That bit of 1970s-vintage management thinking is as dated as bell-bottomed jeans.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

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