Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: A book review by Bob Morris

robertocoverWhy Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus
Michael A. Roberto
Pearson Prentice Hall (2006)

Note: I recently read this book while preparing for an interview and found its insights even more relevant and valuable now than when it was first published several years ago. A Second Edition will be published by FT Press in May, 2013.

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Unless the correct answer really is “Yes”….

Years ago, George Reedy wrote a book, The Imperial Presidency, about his association with President Lyndon Johnson. As I read that book, I was reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Recently, as I read Michael Roberto’s book, I was again reminded of Anderson’s tale as well as Reedy’s book. Emperors, presidents, CEOs, etc. who discourage, indeed punish dissent deny themselves access to information, perspectives, opinions, and suggestions that they may need when making difficult decisions. As a result, they as well as those for whom they are responsible are vulnerable to the consequences of bad decisions which can include making no decision whatsoever.

I forget the source but I once learned of a group discussion during which a CEO turned to one of his executives and observed, “You agree completely with me. One of us is useless.” (Sounds like Jack Welch.) According to Roberto, the most effective leaders are those who “cultivate constructive conflict so as to enhance the level of critical and divergent thinking, while simultaneously building consensus so as to facilitate the timely and efficient implementation of the choices that they make.” Roberto goes on to assert that “effective leaders can and should spend time `deciding how to decide.’ In short, creating high-quality decision-making processes necessitates a good deal of forethought.”

Roberto carefully organizes his material within four Parts. In Chapters 1 and 2, he provides “a conceptual framework for thinking about how to diagnose, evaluate, and improve strategic decision-making processes. Then in Chapters 3-5, Roberto focuses on the task of managing conflict (e.g. factors that can inhibit candid dialogue and debate). Next, in Chapters 6-8, he concentrates on how managers can “create consensus within their organizations without compromising the level of divergent and creative thinking.” In Part IV (Chapter 9), Roberto shares his thoughts about how this book’s philosophy of leadership and decision-making differs from conventional views held by many managers. “Specifically, I distinguish between two different approaches to `taking charge’ when confronted with a difficult decision.” He devotes an entire chapter to differentiating between the two approaches.

Throughout Roberto’s lively narrative, there is 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, 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.”

One final observation of my own. It would be a serious mistake to assume that Roberto wrote this book primarily for senior-level executives. All organizations (regardless of size or nature) urgently need effective leadership in all areas and at all levels. They need people who can make the right decisions, notably when the given problems are especially serious. For these and other reasons, I highly recommend this book to individuals who must make informed and correct decisions about almost any business situation as well as to others who must collaborate on them.

As Roberto well realizes, there are specific reasons why Dante reserves the last (and worst) ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Some decisions require courage, others require judgment, still others must be made quickly and often with insufficient information. How and why are great leaders able to make such decisions, either alone or in consultation with others? In essence, that is what Roberto’s book is really all about.

Those who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out Jason Jennings’ THINK BIG, Act Small, Michael Hammer’s The Agenda and Robert Mittelstaedt’s Will Your Next Mistake Be Fatal?

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