Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer

Why Great LeadersWhy Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus
Michael A. Roberto
FT Press/Pearson (2013)

One of the most important attributes of a great leader

This is the second edition of a book first published in 2005. In my review of that edition, I noted a strong recurring theme: “leaders must strive for a delicate balance of assertiveness and restraint.” One challenge is to be able to do either effectively. Another, greater challenge is to know when each approach should be taken. In this context, Michael Roberto has much of value to say about great leaders as great teachers: “They prepare to decide just as teachers prepare to teach. They have a plan, but they adapt as the decision-making process unfolds. Great leaders do not have all the answers, but they remain firmly in control of the process through which their organizations discover the best answers to the toughest problems.”

Why a second edition? Roberto: “This new edition includes the findings from new research by me and other scholars around the world. It also incorporates what I have learned through the development and delivery of leadership development programs at many companies around the world. You will see new examples, case studies, and research findings throughout the book.” Of course, a book published eight years ago was probably written 9-12 years ago. So much has happened in the global business world since then. Also, Roberto has presumably received substantial feedback from those who have read the book as well as from others who have participated in the aforementioned leadership development programs.

Many years ago, one of Albert Einstein’s Princeton colleagues playfully chided him for asking the same questions each year on his final examinations. Einstein replied, “Quite right. Each year, the answers are different.” The same could be said for many of the business issues that Roberto addresses, especially now when changes in the business world today occur much faster and have much greater impact than at any prior time that I (at least) can recall.

With regard to the book’s title, it refers to one of a great leader’s most important attributes and lends itself to several different interpretations. My own opinion is that great leaders tend to have zero-tolerance of pandering and obsequious subordinates, of so call-called “yes men.” Nor do they accept knee-jerk judgments and welcome carefully reasoned, principled dissent. Of course they will take “yes” — as well as “no” — for an answer if they respect the process by which it was formulated.

The original information, insights, and counsel provided in the first edition have been updated in the second edition with regard to the four separate but related parts within which Roberto presents his material:

One (Chapters 1 and 2): How to diagnose, evaluate, and improve strategic decision-making processes
Two: Chapters 3-6): How to manage conflict
Three (Chapters 7-9): How managers create and then sustain consensus within their diverse organizations
Four (Chapter 10): How the philosophy of leadership and decision making proposed in this book differs from conventional views held by many managers

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Roberto’s coverage.

o Decision-Making Myths (Pages 11-17)
o The Perils of Conflict and Dissent (25-29)
o Managerial Levers (45-65)
o Hard versus Soft Barriers (84-100)
o Pulling All the Right Levers (113-115)
o The Leader’s Toolkit (115-128)
o Curbing Affective Conflict (149-167)
o The Devil’s Advocate in Business (180-184)

o A Culture of Indecision (205-225)
o The Origins of Indecisive Cultures (225-228)
Comment: Re the last two passages, in Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” I urge you to check out Judgment Calls.

o Legitimate Process (249-257)
o Divergence and Convergence (274-278)
o The Psychology of Small Wins (278-281)
o The Importance of Trust (293-297)
o Two Forms of Taking Charge (306-311)

Michael Roberto is an eloquent advocate for effective development of leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise, whatever its size and nature may be. He is also among those who believe that great leaders have a “green thumb” for “growing” those for whom they are directly responsible. This is what he has in mind when concluding this book: “Great leaders, of course, behave as great teachers. They prepare to decide just as teachers prepare to teach. They have a plan, but they adapt as the decision-making process unfolds. Great leaders do not have all the answers, but they remain firmly in control of the process through which their organizations discover the best answers to the toughest question.

Meanwhile, I presume to add, great leaders still don’t automatically take “yes” or “no” for an answer….

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