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Sally Blount

Sally Blount

Sally Blount is dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. An internationally recognized expert in the fields of negotiation and behavioral decision-making, she has more than 20 years of experience in higher education.

The leader as chief strategist

Q: Bob Woodward's new book on the Obama White House portrays a president so frustrated with top military advisers for their refusal to provide what he considered a reasonable exit strategy from Afghanistan that he devised one himself. How should leaders reconcile the laudable instinct to rely on the advice of experts with the sometimes urgent need to force them to think outside the box?

Leaders charged with heading their organizations must be strategists. In that role, they must have the wisdom, courage and acumen, when necessary, to reorient their advisers and content experts on key strategic decisions facing the organization.

The challenge with senior advisers and other content experts is that they are often just that --experts with deep, specialized knowledge in a narrow domain. They are not attuned to the language, framing and packaging required to sell a difficult decision to a broad range of constituents. They don't see the issue from the perspective of the outsider to their area. Too often they talk in their own jargon and bring the "same old, same old" frame to solving the problem. Often they don't have an appreciation for the higher-level strategic issues facing the organization and how their content piece fits into a broader whole.

It is usually only the top manager--the leader who interacts across and with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders, advisers and experts on a regular basis--who most clearly sees the full picture. A strong leader understands that a core part of his or her job is to reorient the adviser whose analysis is off-target and to reframe the adviser whose analysis is right, but whose words are wrong.

By Sally Blount

 |  September 27, 2010; 4:46 PM ET
Category:  A leader's team , Military Leadership , Organizational Culture , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: This isn't "delegatable" | Next: When not to listen to experts


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Blount’s answer privileges the leader as perfect visionary: the manager able to see the goal on the far horizon and communicate direction to those below. Steve Jobs and the mythical Ronald Reagan fit that model—leaders we trust behind the wheel.

(President Obama expressed the flip side when citiquing his political adversaries – saying in effect that the GOP drove us into the ditch, we can’t trust them with the keys again.)

But both responses are too simplistic at any scale. To extend the metaphors, leaders fixed on distant end points may not see the bumps and detours that must be navigated. Or the leader may need to discern between mirage and reality when identifying goals. Senior advisors and content experts have deep, but narrow knowledge, as Blount says, but their specialized input is critical to the manager who wants to set a well-informed, prudent course. Failing to use advisor and expert resources effectively leads just as quickly into ditches.

The challenge is balance: knowing how and when to listen. The leader who feels an urgent need to force advisors to think outside the box may be the one most in need of course correction. If the leader thinks their vision feels right but the expert advice seems narrow and off-target, leaders need ways to ensure that their own judgment is well-calibrated. The burden of final decisions is the leader’s alone, but better decisions emerge from synthesizing contrary opinions than from demanding that advisors think and talk alike.

Posted by: tonynyc | September 29, 2010 8:09 PM
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The top manager of a complex organization never - ever, ever - sees the "full picture". At very best, he or she has some sufficient awareness of more of the issues at hand than most others do and an understanding of the relationships between those issues. The leader's job is then to establish that, given those factors "This is where I want to go".

There are two problems immediate problems with this. The first is that while those at the top have a vision of "Where I want to go", those at the bottom (and allll along the middle) are surrounded by the hard facts of "Where we were already going", and those two are rarely the same. This is especially true when a new leader takes charge, as President Obama was doing here. The second is that for any difficult problem there is guaranteed to be a difference between "This is what I want", and "This is what you can have". If I declare that I want my factory to produce, sell, and make a profit on a vehicle that carries 4 passengers 1,000 miles without refueling, produces zero emissions, refuels from a household socket, and costs less than $5,000, I am likely to be told that what I can have instead is a Prius-not the same.

Sometimes that's what Generals are saying - "I can't do what I think you want done in the circumstances I'm in". Both of these problems demand iterative conversation between those with different responsibilities, experiences, and expertise in order to move towards success. Simultaneously, of course, that "full picture" the top manager is alleged to have is in fact continuously changing, and almost always faster than the news reaches him.

As far as I can tell, all of our advertised Commentators above think that organizational decisionmaking is a linear, step-by-step process that flows from the bottom of the pyramid to the top. Nope. Instead, it's a circle that goes around and around. The leader's job is to keep things rolling forward, in as close to the right direction as is possible, and at a speed that will make a difference. President Obama may have done this. And we'll never know for certain.

Posted by: qtrfoil85 | September 29, 2010 3:35 PM
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