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Why we’re all moving away from ‘Big Man’ leadership

Apr 22, 2013 Business Daily, Leadership

“For most of modern history…going back to medieval times, the dominant way people put up buildings was by going out and hiring Master Builders who designed them, engineered them, and oversaw construction from start to finish, portico to plumbing. Master Builders built Notre Dame, St Peter’s Basilica, and the United States Capitol Building. But by the middle of the twentieth century the Master Builders were dead and gone. The variety and sophistication of advancements in every stage of the construction process had overwhelmed the abilities of the individual to master them.”

ATUL GAWANDE The Checklist Manifesto (2010)

Doctors are generally quite peculiar folk. In my experience, they seldom venture beyond their area of expertise, and are often content to remain blissfully unaware of other types of knowledge. They find it quite difficult to explain themselves to laypersons, and quite frequently end up marrying other doctors, just to keep life simple.

Atul Gawande is a notable exception. He is a surgeon of renown in the US, but he is also a writer of some talent. I have been reading his work as a staff writer in the New Yorker for years. His latest book, ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, is worth a look.

Being a curious person, Dr Gawande found himself staring at a building in construction in one of his perambulations in Boston and wondering: why is it that hardly any buildings fall down? Such a heavy, complex structure with so many potential stress points – how does it hold together? Who’s the leader here?

The answer is in the excerpt shown. There was once an all-powerful leader called the Master Builder who oversaw everything; but the complexities of modern construction have made this role obsolete – not to mention dangerous. Now, the individual areas of expertise are separated and each manages its specialist function – design, materials, structure, electricals, plumbing – using strict processes and checklists.

In the good doctor’s own profession, however, this change has not happened. Medicine is still dominated by the ‘star consultant’ – the all-knowing, all-powerful near-deity who calls all the shots from diagnosis to treatment and is revered by all. If this ‘master doctor’ is on your case, you survive.

Or not. As Dr Gawande admits, clinical procedures coordinated wholly by these powerful consultants are encountering severe problems. Duplicated, flawed or just uncoordinated treatments abound. Change has to come.

This got me thinking: is the same not true in leadership in general? We have moved on from the ‘Big Man’ model to multi-nodal leadership. Countries led by single, dominant holders of power are coming increasingly unstuck, as no one person can stay on top of a modern nation.

In business, too, Master Builders like Rupert Murdoch or even Steve Jobs are dying away. It is no longer feasible for a single person to call the shots on everything from technology to marketing to finances to operations. The nature of organizational leadership must change, moving from ‘commander-in-chief’ to ‘head coach’.

Leadership will remain vital, of course it will. But its primary roles are going to be: getting the best out of others; getting different functions to work together; and managing resource decisions and trade-offs. This is very different from being the nexus of all decisions and judgements. It will also require a different type of persona. Big egos are unlikely to thrive.

In our part of the world, buildings still fall down with alarming frequency. This shows that we are still in transition from the Master Builder era to one dominated by specialists with strict processes, checklists and regulations. The same holds true in our businesses, and I wonder how many corporations will have to tumble before we move away from placing too much hope in individuals, and towards having an array of specialists coordinated by a leader with much looser reins.

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