Call for a Moratorium on Easy Generalities

Rip Van Winkle
Rip Van Winkle

               Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In reading one of my favorite pundits, David Brooks, whose pithy banter with Mark Shields enlivens my nightly visits with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, I believe that Mr. Brooks has ventured into a conclusion that is “simpler” than researchers intended. In his May 19, 2009 column for The New York Times, a column that ran widely across the planet, he concluded that effective CEOs must have hard, or task, skills (perseverance, toughness, keen intellect, and the like), and that the soft, or people, skills (listening, team building, collegiality, and the like) do not matter. In Big Five terms, he said that low N (Neuroticism or Need for Stability) and high C (Conscientiousness or Consolidation) were paramount in predicting effective CEO performance, and that E (Extraversion), O (Openness or Originality), and (Agreeableness or Accommodation) do not matter. He based these conclusions primarily on two studies of CEO performance: Kaplan, Klebanov, and Sorensen’s July 2008 analysis of 300 sets of CEO data, and Barrick, Mount, and Judge’s 2001 study.

               In keeping with Einstein’s purported admonition, I will keep my objection to Mr. Brooks’ conclusions simple. For two reasons, most readers should basically forget Mr. Brooks’ op ed piece. Why, even Homer nods, and Mr. Brooks has strayed into the land of nod.

               First, in the Kaplan, Klebanov, and Sorenson study, researchers examined the data of some 300 executives who were hired for a specific purpose: to take a company supported by venture capital and sell it, either by initial public offering or by leveraged buyout. This is an extremely narrow, and highly biased, sample of executive leadership. For those of us who have entertained the prospect of staging our company for sale, it is all about maximizing the allure of short term numbers, the kind of values that Theodore Leavitt warned us about in his classic 1960 HBR (Volume 37, pages 45-56) article entitled “Marketing Myopia: Managing Our Way to Economic Decline.” Leavitt warned of short term values (quick profits) at the expense of long term values (sustainable growth). Yet, in this research, Kaplan and his associates are trying to tell us the secret to short term success: belt tightening, no nonsense, stick to the knitting, forget R & D, and emphasize numbers over people, all in service of maximum return on investment to the few. The hard skills will get you there, but at what expense?

               Second, in support of K, K, & S, Brooks draws on a study by Barrick, Mount, and Judge that concludes something we already knew: that C (Conscientiousness or Consolidation) is the best single predictor of success across all jobs, including CEOs. The second best predictor is N (Neuroticism or Need for Stability). Focused ambition with ice in one’s veins—the formula for the successful CEO. However, as Barrick and his colleagues themselves point out, the 15 meta-analytic studies they draw on are reducing executive performance to a single context: a composite of the entire world of work. They have reduced performance to a point that is far too simple . CEOs are not interchangeable. Context is crucial. Personal characteristics that are effective in one context (say, a relational, people-first culture such as those that win the “best place to work” awards for family/work balance) do not necessarily translate to other contexts). Organizations have different needs at different times in their history, much as the U.S. needed a higher A president after Richard Nixon, or a higher IQ president after G. W. Bush.

               Now for the clincher: the authors of both studies make the same points that I am making, but Mr. Brooks fails to take note of them. First, Kaplan and associates acknowledge near the end of their article that “These types of companies may have specific needs and, therefore, the results may not generalize to all companies [my emphasis].” Second, Barrick and associates make an even stronger statement towards the end of their article: “We call for a moratorium on meta-analytic studies [my emphasis] and recommend that researchers embark on a new research agenda designed to further our understanding of personality-performance linkages.” In other words, stop generalizing from narrow samples to the whole, and begin examining the personal characteristics crucial to success in specific contexts.

               Indeed. Let’s stop looking for silver bullets, for panaceas, for one-size-fits-all, for easy generalities. It is one thing to praise qualities that are generally effective, like reliability. It is another thing, however, to scorn those qualities that, while not effective everywhere, are highly effective in specific contexts. Imagination, comfort with complexity, trust, good listening, and enthusiasm may not be the tools of the high-powered business executive, but they certainly have their moments in helping increase the effectiveness of organizations.

One thought on “Call for a Moratorium on Easy Generalities

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  1. I believe it was Jim Farr that said the heart of leadership is in knowing your potential followers. This of course fits with the notion of contextual leadrship. I have found that axiom to be true in relationships with partners also.

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