The age-old dichotomy of followers and leaders in business may be facing a challenge. Certainly, all companies, regardless of size, need a CEO with vision spearheading the way for innovation, forward motion and profit maximization.
But in today's climate, as businesses become more global and employees have increasingly high levels of education and expertise, leaders must know how to collaborate.
Whether it's sitting in on roundtable discussions, deferring to a vice president or delegating projects to teams, successful presidents and CEOs must now be less about control and more about consensus.
"For leaders to implement their vision, especially on any kind of a grand scale, they absolutely need to collaborate," says Corrine Bendersky, an associate professor of management and organizations at UCLA Anderson. "Whether that's with subordinates, partners or suppliers, effective leadership is all about collaboration."
But it's a finely tuned skill, and those at the top have to tread carefully between relying on others and sticking to their own visions. Because just as collaboration is necessary, so is the ability to make difficult decisions and be responsible for their outcomes. That means that for the modern-day CEO, leading — and leading well — is a balancing act.
"Your instinct forms the basis from which you are judging things," says Man Jit Singh, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. "But what collaboration allows you to do is to listen to other people's instincts and refine your position if necessary. I don't see them as mutually exclusive, but rather building on each other."
The archetype of presidents and CEOs as visionaries has endured for decades. Brilliant leaders such as Winston Churchill were famous for knowing exactly what they wanted and executing their vision without hesitation or, often, even input from others.
Perhaps no one in recent memory captured this notion in the collective imagination better than Steve Jobs. In founding Apple, Jobs had a singular vision — and that vision turned out to be worth billions. With his idea of how the Apple brand should look and function, and what its products should accomplish in the world, he ushered in a new era of technology and placed his company at the forefront.
But Jobs also had a reputation as a harsh boss. He was allegedly incredibly arrogant, says Bendersky, and didn't develop the people around him.
"Steve Jobs was special in many ways," Bendersky says, "but he was awful at collaborative leadership. He did not do a good job setting up his organization to succeed after his death," she mentions.
With that juxtaposition, Jobs embodied the very dilemma facing many CEOs today. He set a clear example of how leaders become legends by following their own vision. Jobs' idea for a digital future was what launched the Apple juggernaut in the first place. But he also represented what happens when leaders ignore the advice of people on their team and refuse to invest in their careers.
So how much should leaders collaborate and how much should they listen to their own instincts?
"You want to follow good people and support good people," says George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic. "That's the pathway to long-term success. But you also have to have the confidence to push to where you think the organization needs to go and, at a certain point, you have to stop taking counsel and act."
This is the knowledge that UCLA Anderson students recognize as being critical. Brian Schoelkopf ('15) cites Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner as leaders who embody the spirit of collaboration, particularly under trying circumstances. Paulson served as the secretary of the treasury during the financial crisis of 2008, and Geithner served as the chairman for the New York Federal Reserve. Together, they orchestrated deals that saved Wall Street from going under.
"They pulled off an abnormally successful collaborative feat," Schoelkopf says. "These guys got the CEOs from all these big banks — players [who] would not naturally come together, who are usually at each others' throats — to sit down at a table together and take action to keep a bad situation from getting a lot worse."
Leaders can begin by building an excellent team. Choosing to work with individuals who are experts in their fields ensures that when decisions need to be made, the most qualified people will be sitting at the table.
Bob Eckert, chairman emeritus and former president and CEO of Mattel Inc., says that he faced such a situation in 2007 when Mattel found that some of its products contained lead paint. For at least four months, a team comprising 30 to 40 senior management individuals met on a global conference call twice a day, seven days a week. As CEO, Eckert would be the one making the final decisions.
But, he says, having the right people around him made those decisions easy.
"All of the parties that needed to have input were at the table," he says. "It really required very different skill sets, and we had the PR people right there, manufacturing people, quality people, legal representation, consumer insight representation, retail and customer managers. Everybody was making sure that we were coordinated and that we were capturing valuable input from all parties."
"If you've got a group of people who are performing really well," says Virgin Galactic's Whitesides, "supporting them — even if they are going in a direction that is counterintuitive to what you're thinking — is generally the right way to go."
For Singh, collaborating with his team is all about knowing that the product is in the best hands possible. In fact, he says, most of his decisions are influenced by those in positions to make suggestions.
"At Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, we have a very special expertise in our distribution — my colleague Aodán Coburn, who heads up our supply team management. I am completely comfortable with leaving the running to him, because I know he's an expert in it. Nine times out of 10 we go with his recommendation."
In addition to being experts, those teams need to represent a wide array of opinions for collaboration to be effective.
"Diversity — beyond gender or race or those sorts of things — is really important," Eckert adds. "How people think and approach problems and discuss things; having a diverse perspective is critical."
"If collaboration is just endless meetings, putting off decision-making and not being willing to take the responsibility for making a decision, that is a huge weakness."
Gary Reuben, a lecturer at UCLA Anderson, says that one characteristic of a good leader is knowing when to take the reigns and simply move forward, even if others on the team aren't ready. "Too much collaboration leads to analysis paralysis," he says. "Every time you collaborate with someone, you get a different opinion, and you analyze and analyze. Leadership is about making decisions."
Plus, someone has to be responsible for finalizing difficult decisions, whether others in the company are ready to or not.
"The CEO job is not a popularity contest," Eckert says. "In a company, in an organization, ultimately there is a leader and sometimes the leader has to make tough calls and unpopular calls. That's part of the territory; it's part of the job."
Relying too heavily on others' opinions is an easy mistake to make. Singh notes that collaboration can occasionally be used as a stalling technique or as a way to shirk making a tough call.
"If collaboration is just endless meetings, putting off decision-making and not being willing to take the responsibility for making a decision, that is a huge weakness," he says. "I don't think everything can be done as a group decision. It's not about slowing the work process down; it's about moving on ideas."
Part of the reason people fall into that particular trap, adds Singh, is that business decisions always contain an inherent risk. No amount of debate or consideration removes that, and good leaders should get comfortable with that reality and be willing to take it on.
"We want to take measured risk," he says. "Decisions that have a 60 to 90 percent chance of succeeding — that means sometimes you are going to fail. But it doesn't matter; [if you only make] decisions that have a 90 percent chance of succeeding, you take no risk and you're going to get left behind."
Reuben says that keeping team members on board with a company's direction in the face of taking immediate action involves a great deal of trust. "The main area of leadership is credibility," he says. "Find your voice, set the example and inspire a shared vision. You can collaborate your heart out, but if you don't have credibility, you're not going to be a good leader."
"The days of command and control management style are way gone."
Still, the idea that most leaders should aspire to be sole visionaries is both unrealistic and counterproductive.
"This romanticized vision of leadership as standing up as a lone genius, accomplishing something by thinking of something that is completely innovative, is a very limited definition," Bendersky says, "and includes a very limited set of individuals."
What most people can do, though, is improve their ability to either hone in and act on their decisions or work well with others. According to Kelly Bean, associate dean of UCLA Anderson, skills that improve leadership on both ends of the spectrum can be learned. Whereas one might be born with a certain proclivity for collaborating or for visionary leadership, one can develop skills to improve areas of weakness.
"It can be learned along the way and it can be taught," says Bean. "It takes a willingness, awareness and understanding about who you are and how you come across, a willingness to be a little vulnerable and uncomfortable, and the willingness to grow. But we can adapt and manage our styles and who we are; people just need to have the opportunity to recognize their own behaviors."
Most business leaders agree, though, that a leadership style defined by ego is something that won't fly in today's corporate world. As technology makes us continually more global, CEOs and presidents must continue to diversify their teams, rely on expertise from across the world and relinquish the notion that visionary leadership requires unchecked autocracy.
"The days of command and control management style are way gone," Eckert says. "The way for companies to accomplish things today is through collaboration."
Bendersky notes that it's not hard to find examples of good leadership built through collaboration, but rather that "effective dictatorship is hard to come by," she says.
"A leader who acts tyrannical and insists that people do what he or she says — ‘my way or the highway' — doesn't have a sustainable long-term approach," she adds. "Somebody who needs that kind of control and power is only going to succeed in very narrow situations and probably not for very long."