Management, Leadership, and Mark Hurd: Why Top Teams Are More Important Than Individual CEOs

My last posts here and at Harvard Business Review were about the unintended dangers of the distinction between leadership and management. I argued that leadership is too often over-glorified and management is too often under-appreciated, which results in management being treated as a second class activity. The discussion these posts provoked, a total of about 30 comments in total, yielded great examples and details. I especially liked Rick's statement that "there is an ebb and flow in what is required, the mix of leadership (inspiration) and management (perspiration) which best matches the in-the-moment need of the entity which is being managed and led." Good stuff. This very consistent with the notion that the best bosses are in tune with others, and skilled at making the right adjustments in response.

Mark HurdI was thinking about all this when I read a fascinating editorial by Joe Nocera in The New York Times about the Mark Hurd story, where he makes the argument that perhaps HP wanted to get rid of Hurd for other reasons, and used sex/misuse of funds scandal as an excuse. The editorial contained a lot of quotes from ex-HP executive Chuck House (an amazing guy, once given an award by David Packard for "Exceptional Defiance and Contempt Beyond the Usual Call of Engineering"). It ended with this assertion:

What H.P. needs in its next leader, Mr. House told me, is "someone with Carly's strategic sense, Mark's operational skills, and Lew's emotional intelligence." (Lewis E. Platt preceded Ms. Fiorina as C.E.O.)

Nocera described this as a tall order but not an impossible one. My first reaction was, well, it is impossible, no one boss can do that. My second reaction, "Oh! It is possible—so long as we make some different assumptions." In Chuck's quote, and in some of the ways I was talking about connecting management to leadership, there was an implicit and I think inaccurate assumption that there are single magical leaders who can do everything. This is called the romance of leadership, something researchers have studied a lot and I write about in Good Boss, Bad Boss. The best bosses —and the best companies, including the best boards—don't fall prey to this cognitive error and look for an all powerful and flawless CEO who can do everything. Rather they look for a boss who can build and properly lead a team with the right range and balance of skills. Note that Carly's inability to delegate operations to others and try to do too much of it herself is one reason she lost her job. And if Nocera is right, HP's emerging troubles with innovation and morale are things that were not being handled well enough by his team.

The upshot of all this is that the best bosses aren't all powerful and all knowing, but by understanding their own limits and developing the wisdom to rely on others who can compensate for them, they can have a team that applies the right blend of management and leadership skills to achieve greatness. This is one of the reasons that I emphasize wisdom so much in Good Boss, Bad Boss, which includes the ability to recognize one's weaknesses and blind spots and find ways to dampen or reverse the negative effects. You can see this quality in some of the greatest companies of our time, at Pixar under Ed Catmull, P&G under AG Lafley, and it appears, at Apple with the blend of Steve Jobs visionary brilliance and Tim Cook's operational excellence. Indeed, I think Job's deserves more credit than he gets for building a team that compensates for his weaknesses.

In the case of HP, I don't think it is possible to find the one superwoman or superman that Nocera and Chuck House hope might exist. But I do believe it is possible to find a CEO with skill and wisdom to build a team with Carly's strategic ability, Hurd's operational skill, and Lew's EQ. As a final note, when you take this perspective on leadership as team sport—which is especially crucial in a big company—you can see why academics have become increasingly convinced that the dynamics of top teams have such strong effects on performance, probably stronger than the characteristics and actions of the CEO alone.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His most recent book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Survive the Worst, will be published September 2010. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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3 Comments

  • charles house

    I couldn't agree more, Bob. Actually, I made the comments for Nocera somewhat in jest -- well aware that it'd be virtually impossible to find such a person. And even if found, could they command loyalty, etc. from the 'team below them"? Even as a small company, HP had 'dual' leadership with Bill and Dave. Bill was content to stay in the background (talk about low need for ego!) but his counsel and wisdom were much more responsible for much of HP's evolution than is commonly credited. And Dave wisely 'kept' him forever, in contrast to lots of other 'shared' leadership 'teams'. It seems impressively hard for those at the top to listen, to embrace, and to involve others -- in effect, to empower the team members. When it happens, the results are extraordinary. What the issue at HP is, however, is not just who leads, and what style they use, but the real question about whether the company exists for its shareholders or its stakeholders. HP historically was a leader in terms of broad leadership definition of Stakeholders all needing to be in balance for long-term success -- in this view, employees, suppliers, customers, and community are all valued and considered along with shareholders. The narrow view has too often characterized American business, and is still the prevailing wisdom at most of our business schools. Andy Grove's recent Business Week article is poignant on this issue, but so too is the question of "where next, HP?"

  • Ann Spoor

    Robert- I have been following your writings on leadership and find it very interesting. Thank you! My comment is that in order for a CEO or any other executive to build the right team that can capitalize on their weaknesses and acheive that greatness, they have to push ego aside and not only hire the right people but give those people the authority to succeed. I have worked with too many people who are high acheiving, are brought in for the right reasons, but are not able to succeed because the talk never turns into the walk. Your example of Jobs and Cook making such a formidable team reminds me of Eisner when he had Wells at Disney. Wells was the glue in the organization. Again, thanks and I look forward to keeping up with you!