What’s the Narrative About Your Leadership?

By Brook Manville

(Larry Prusak, Brook Manville, and Tom Davenport are at work on a book on judgment and how to cultivate it as an organizational, not just individual, strength. Over the next few months, we'll each be authoring posts in this blog to test-drive ideas and invite input as the research progresses.)

In my last post, I reflected on the election defeat of a politician who, by most reports, was the kind of leader who pursued his own sense of right against the counsel of advisors. Buried in all the news coverage, I wrote, was a deeper story of "competing leadership narratives." The line on the first candidate was that he was his own man, operating according to his own "true north" — while the understanding of his opponent was that he had a talent for attracting great advisors and judiciously listened to them. Both of these were narratives constructed in the public mind to make its choice more clear, and both were narratives more particularly about styles of judgment.

Even more common in election seasons, we see another clash of judgment narratives: there is always talk of some visionary leader who "doesn't govern by polls and focus groups" even as praise is heaped on another admired leader who hears voters' concerns, and "doesn't let ego or personal preference keep him from doing the right thing."

What should the narrative be about your judgment style, then? Don't assume that competing narratives aren't constructed around business leaders, too. IBM CEO Lou Gerstner earned his in the 1990s, when he famously rejected advice from hundreds of employees, consultants, and even some customers that "Big Blue needed a new strategy, and should be broken up. " Instead, he took the opposite tack (to great success), pursuing strategies that leveraged the considerable assets of the company. His successor, Sam Palmisano, has presided over an IBM in a way that seems pretty different; the company has become famous for its worldwide "jams," extended virtual collaborations collecting insights and input from employees about such things as its core values; and IBM has since broadened the use of jams to increasingly co-create solutions with customers and partners on various global topics.

The profiles of each of these leaders are narratives, in that they are constructed accounts with an implied sequence and causality of events. (By the first narrative, a leader reflects and listens to his/her inner voice, receives various superficial or misleading input from others, and has the courage to ignore that — which allows for a final winning decision or action. By the second narrative, the leader knows his/her own biases and shortcomings, thoughtfully weighs the input of advisors and the market, and uses the collective wisdom to arrive at a great decision.) And the narratives are competing because each has equally strong support in management practice. Indeed, they both carry the same intuitive weight since, with a little thought, any of us can recall a particular decision — whether our own or of a leader we were following — that proves the case for either approach.

Who's the better model for exercising judgment, then? Gerstner or Palmisano? What moral could another leader take away from the consideration of both their narratives?

Given all the recent interest in the "wisdom of crowds" and collective intelligence, it might be tempting to see in them a historical evolution: Gerstner, smart guy that he was, was a prisoner of his age. Before the technology and mindset of internet-enabled collaboration was in full bloom, he did the best that his McKinsey-trained mind told him — and, as luck would have it, he got it right. But that was then, and this is now. Palmisano is more modern, and in step with the way the new world and new leaders now have to work.

But I'm skeptical of that answer; as I suggested in that earlier post, I think the right answer "floats somewhere above" the artificial choice between the two competing narratives. I've also been rethinking my previous speculation that perhaps "different situations require different degrees of input from markets and advisors." Though I don't think that's wrong per se, I increasingly believe great judgment is really not about a choice of when to use how much market input or counselors. Rather it always involves "both/and" thinking — somehow combining both one's inner values and experience and the greater wisdom of crowds, and not a priori opting for one or the other.

In trying to build organizational judgment, we might be arriving at something we could call post-modern leadership. It's a leadership that finds truth in the paradox of the choice and in the alignment of the two choices' different kinds of knowledge. The new leadership narrative is not a set of competing alternatives, but a still-to-be articulated hybrid of both art and science, individual vision, and the voice of a broader community of stakeholders.


Brook Manville consults to socially-minded enterprises on matters of strategy and organizational development. He is author (with Josiah Ober) of A Company of Citizens: What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations.

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