Forget Mozart, companies now prefer a steady Salieri as CEO

Herminia Ibarra Leadership The Financial Times

The pendulum seems to be swinging away from egocentric, inspirational stagecraft.

It used to be that calling someone a “good manager” was to damn with faint praise. But we may have had a surfeit of charisma and be ready for some nuts-and-bolts leadership.

Sanofi’s Chris Viehbacher is the latest larger-than-life chief executive to be ousted by his board for a direct, go-it-alone style and spotty execution. Fund manager Pimco quickly disassociated itself from “bond king” Bill Gross’s temperamental leadership style after his departure, with a marketing campaign that highlights a reasoned, team-centric approach.

Perhaps more tellingly, 24 of Harvard Business Review’s latest list of the world’s 100 best-performing CEOs have degrees in engineering. Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, comments in an accompanying article that an engineering background signals practicality and pragmatism: “Engineering is about what works, and it breeds in you an ethos of building things that work – whether it’s a machine or a structure or an organisation.” Ultimately, he concludes: “It makes you think about costs versus performance.”

Spencer Stuart headhunter James Citrin adds that engineers “excel at ‘architectural thinking’ and logical problem solving”. So much for visionary rhetoric.

Ideas on leadership tend to change over time, and the pendulum seems to be swinging away from egocentric, inspirational stagecraft toward steady, competent execution. New Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s roots in engineering initially worried some investors who wondered whether he had the necessary oomph. He has since emerged as a practical leader with a shrewd approach that is steadily repositioning the company to compete in a post-PC world. Google’s famous experiment in manager-free organisation was not only shortlived, but paved the way for a talent management system designed to rely more on procedure than instinct.

From the start of the 20th century, scholars toiled to identify universal personal traits of successful leaders – the “great man” theories. But no such characteristics were found. It was not until the 1960s that “situational leadership”, the notion that different kinds of organisations and business environments need different kinds of executives, took hold. Big manufacturers, the theory held, were best led by command and control and small, knowledge organisations, by collegial collaboration.

In the 1990s, as organisations became more complex and executives job-hopped with increasing frequency, attention again turned away from context and back to the individual. We developed the distinction between “managers” and “leaders” – one succeeding on efficiency of process and procedure, the other leading the charge to change them.

Aspiring leaders got the message that it was best for their career to shun the “boring” manager role. When Jean-Francois Manzoni, faculty director of a leadership course for senior executives at Insead, asked how they allocated their time, he found they spent most of it “doing” and “mobilising people” (as visionaries are wont to do), much less on “strategising” and even less on “architecting” processes and structures.

In 2011, inspired by a scene in the film Amadeus, when a charismatic Mozart dazzles an audience by composing a sonata on the spot that is better than his rival Salieri’s piece, researchers Maia Young, Michael Morris, and Vicki Scherwin set out to find the sources of managers’ mystique. In a study published in the Journal of Management, they found that people attribute “mystical” qualities to managers when they seem to succeed effortlessly, thanks to extraordinary personal qualities. Managers who were seen as visionary attracted a greater following because people wanted to be associated with them. Those whose success seemed to derive from visible causes, such as long hours, careful analysis or deliberate procedure, attracted fewer followers.

It seems that many leaders now want to leave the hands-on management work to others, preferring to convey their authenticity instead of rolling up their sleeves to transform antiquated company structures. But, as the Pimco and Sanofi changes remind us, the time may have come to recognise the value of efficient systems and robust controls rather than inspirational messaging.

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