Document Created: 2 February 2007
Air & Space Power Journal Book Review - Spring 2007
Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and
Consensus by Michael A. Roberto. Wharton School Publishing (http://www.whartonsp.com),
One Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458, 2005, 304 pages, $29.95
If you’re convinced you have no need of others’ perspectives because you’ll always lead your team to reach the best decision, skip this review and move on to another. If you’re a leader committed to leading and growing your team to reach right decisions, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer is for you—read on.
One rarely finds a book that resonates so well through a blend of practical experience, extensive study, and academic examination, but this book does exactly that. Its foundation includes a two-year study of decision making in the air and space and defense industry, a survey of presidents across Fortune 500 firms, in-depth interviews with general managers of top firms, and diverse yet relevant real-world examples. Dr. Roberto effectively weaves these observations and studies of both industry and government to compile what could easily be a Management 101 how-to text on effective decision making—and a how-to on developing teams toward effectively making future decisions. Offering sensible lessons on everything from organizational-culture analysis, to approaches, to defusing dysfunctionality, the book is so rich in practical observations that this review can focus on only a selected few.
Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer presents four major components of decision making so that any leader of a group of team members—regardless of the level in the organization—can learn from and apply its ideas. First, it focuses on a conceptual framework for thinking about diagnosis, evaluation, and improvement of strategic decision-making processes. Second, it examines constructive methods for managing and even promoting conflict, leading into how managers can create consensus within their organizations. Finally, it calls leaders to seize an active role in shaping, influencing, and directing the process by which their organizations make high-stakes choices—without micromanaging the content of the decision.
The hook of the book is that by virtue of power, popularity, or position, a leader may hear yes and groupthink far too often—or simply hear nothing when people may prefer to say no, thereby receiving bad news late, if at all. Such leaders then enter into discussions, briefings, or strategy sessions with their teams, looking to provide “confirmation bias”—information which supports only a preexisting conclusion or an already-chosen path, while downplaying data that contradicts their existing views and thrusts. This situation is characterized as a “charade of consultation”—a process steered by the leader to arrive at a preordained outcome. If allowed to progress, an organization’s decision processes then become restricted information processing and constrained searches for solutions, with reduced breadth of participation and increased reliance on formal communication procedures—all to the detriment of the final decision’s effectiveness. The book illustrates another deterrent to effective decision making to which many leaders are susceptible—the flawed “sunk cost bias,” involving continued commitment to a flawed or risky course of action because of substantial prior investments of time, money, or other resources.
Addressing how to avoid taking yes for an answer, Dr. Roberto submits that one cause of the problem may reside in a leader’s style, or it may simply reside in the challenges inherent in the organization’s culture—patterns of dysfunction festering within. It may also have roots with executives uncomfortable with confrontation who willingly accept yes to avoid debate, with leaders who are highly introverted, or with those who knowingly or subconsciously prefer to manage by fear and intimidation as they impose their will on organizations. Another pitfall in the making of key decisions comes from leaders who rely on their favorites—their “cronies or sycophants”—rather than their experts. Verbosity does not equal expertise. These examples underscore the critical role that a particular leader’s style and personality can play in encouraging or discouraging candid dialogue and consensus within an organization. This dialogue and consensus remain essential to getting the team to embrace and implement decisions, and to ensure the quality of decisions and their effective implementation—so that the decision will outlive the leader’s tenure.
Another basic aspect examined is the role the leader assumes to control both the process and content of decisions—to decide how and when to introduce his or her own views into the deliberations, how much and how he or she will intervene actively to direct discussion and debate, and how he or she will attempt to bring closure to the process to reach a final decision.
An especially pertinent focus deals with how the most effective leaders take great care to anticipate unintended consequences, remaining acutely sensitive to the norms or organizational culture that tends to stifle the open communication which could give rise to those consequences. If communication is stifled, Dr. Roberto stresses that leaders cannot afford to wait for dissent or discussion to come to them; indeed, they may actively have to seek it out in their organization. Toward that end, he offers leaders selected tools to ignite discussion, warning signs to monitor the health of a debate, and methods for overcoming indecision. Finally, he stresses the importance of, and suggests paths for, conducting “process checks” from time to time to ensure everyone is on the same sheet of music as decisions are formulated and implemented.
Of utmost importance, present throughout the book is the theme that great leaders must behave as great teachers, mindful of teaching processes to the team members and recognizing that the leader’s first responsibility is to create new leaders. Finally, the comprehensive content of this book qualifies it for the list of works I recommend or personally present to encourage leadership, from newly commissioned officers to those assuming command. As you read it, you may find yourself reflecting as I did—“if only” some of the people I’d worked with had considered these lessons, then how much greater could have been their impact on and contributions to our service, our nation, and even their own individual “legacies.” The hope is that current and emerging leaders will follow the wisdom that leaps off the pages of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer to form a strong foundation for our future.
Brig Gen Duane Deal, USAF, Retired
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Maryland
and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author
cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of
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