Back Talk: Lonely at the top?


Military history is filled with tales of top leaders facing momentous decisions: Julius Caesar at the Rubicon, Washington at Trenton, Eisenhower before D-Day, Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis. “The buck stops here” is part of our culture. 

That's why I was somewhat taken aback by a recent interview in The Wall Street Journal (“From War Room to Boardroom”), featuring two retired generals, Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Both insisted that the primary role of a general (or a CEO) is not to be a decision maker, but a decision facilitator. 

A “facilitator”? That's not what I recall from the movies!

Gen. McChrystal explained that, as a rising officer, he was expected to make operational decisions, but once he reached higher levels of command he lacked requisite on-the-ground ex­pertise and had to rely on his team. Whenever he tried top-down, “hierarchical” decision making, he found his decisions were not always right; even when they were, they were often out of date or wrong by the time they reached the field. As a result, McChrystal came to see the importance of expediting—making sure that sound decisions are not only timely made but also timely executed. 

Lt. Gen. Flynn added another hurdle is “the speed with which information is … bombarding the decision-making processes.” Because one person can't keep on top of everyone and everything, the CEO's responsibility is to be sure that her or his team understands and is on board with overall strategy. As Flynn put it, the CEO's goal is to “empower the organization as far down as you can, to the point where you're almost uncomfortable allowing decisions to be made at a certain level. [Then] you're probably doing the right thing.”

He's right there. Letting your team make high-level decisions is not just uncomfortable—it can be terrifying! One day you're a star recognized for individual accomplishments; the next day your career depends on the collective wisdom of a group. Yet the truth is that if you've chosen your group well and they become a team, you've got an excellent chance of success. 

Let's return to the interview:

• CEOs need to understand that being in charge doesn't mean making every decision. That's the job of executive teams. Top-down command doesn't always work.

• “Silo” thinking is not team thinking. If groups within an organization believe their internal identity is more important than their shared membership, they'll always be protecting their turf and large initiatives will become impossible. 

• Seek people with the expertise you need. Lt. Gen. Flynn notes that shortly after Pearl Harbor, the US forces recruited 5,000 Japanese speakers. Many of our troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan are due to our never having had enough Arabic or Pashtun speakers in the military. 

• Building executive teams takes time. It can take months. You have to encourage affiliations that foster group cohesiveness in spite of inevitable internal disagreements. 

To sum up today's briefing: The “lonely genius at the top” plays great in war movies, but it doesn't make sense in today's business world. There you need a team.

Sander A. Flaum, MBA, is principal, Flaum Navigators, and executive-in-residence and chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration.

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