I understand the desire to study great leaders. It is my own habit as well. I gobble up biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and currently Steve Jobs. But I read because I am interested in history. I do not believe that studying these leaders will reveal the secret formula to great leadership. Ultimately they were human beings with great strengths and also human flaws, and I think it is a huge mistake to idealize them and try to copy them.

The traditional paradigm where the great leader imparts his wisdom and leads his organization to great heights does not work in today’s world.

With an expanding global economy, a digital information explosion, and increasingly rapid pace of business, our world is too large, our organizations too complex. One person, no matter how great, can’t know everything. The days of “Father Knows Best” are over.

 

 

Instead of focusing solely on where they are taking their organization, leaders are better served to first think about what kind of organization they are building.

This is not a new discussion.  Since the 1990’s when Peter Senge popularized the notion of “learning organizations,” there has been a lot of discussion about attributes of great companies. Books like Built to Last (Collins and Porras, 1997) and Good to Great (Collins, 2001) have laid a foundation. But because not much has been written about what it looks like in daily practice, many people continue to wonder whether it is realistic.

 

We need more models of what these organizations look like in real life.

For this reason I was delighted to discover Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right by Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012)

Davenport and Manville provide 12 case studies of critical decisions made in real organizations – where courageous leaders let go of the notion that leadership is about knowing where you’re going and who tapped into the collective wisdom of their organization to make the right decision.

Judgment Calls shows what it looks like in organizations that have developed the ability to make better decisions through a broad-based, data-intensive approach. These are real stories and there is much to learn from them.

Leadership is about building organizational capabilities and harnessing the collective wisdom of the organization. Davenport and Manville’s case studies are organized around four themes:

  1. Utilizing collaborative processes for decision-making
  2. Accessing the plethora of available data and transforming it into useful information
  3. Being guided by a powerful organizational culture that values participation, diversity, challenge and debate
  4. Leaders who their role is to develop the context and structures that support collective exploration and problem-solving

As real-life is somewhat messy, so are the examples described in Judgment Calls. There is no “cookbook” here, but the lessons are clear.

Warren Bennis once said, “Leaders are people who do the right thing.” I would amend it to say, “Leaders are people who create organizations that do the right thing.”  Real examples like those provided in Judgment Calls provide us with a believable picture of what it looks like when organizations “do the right thing.”

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