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February 18, 2007
There's No "I" in "Team," But There Is In "Hubris"

One of the wickedly enjoyable things Henry Mintzberg does in his Managers Not MBAs is mock the way Harvard Business School case studies and business press accounts portray the chief executive as Superman. This CEO "built a new division from scratch," while that CEO "developed and advanced profitable new strategies" — single-handedly, one would think. It put me in mind of a study I saw years ago, showing that when publicly traded companies have good years, their annual reports are filled with claims of how their deliberate actions led to the better results, while in bad years they blame market conditions and other external factors.

Mintzberg observes that the descriptions of CEOs — often encouraged by the CEOs themselves — follows a similar pattern. This came to mind when I was going through some old files yesterday, and ran across this quote by Novartis's chief, Daniel Vasella, after his company re-acquired (at a hefty premium) rights to a drug they had abandoned, only to see it developed by a small start-up:

"The fact that we are where we are is the best proof that they were wrong."

The "we," of course, is Novartis. "They," meanwhile, refers to other people at Novartis (not Vasella, mind you). It's those other people, you see, who frittered the opportunity away.

A slip of the tongue? Maybe so. With Mintzberg's book still on my mind, however, I dug up Vasella's approved biography and learned that he "strengthened Novartis's research capacity" and "implemented strong pioneering initiatives." Elsewhere I discovered that he "co-authored" a book about his courageous efforts to develop and produce a breakthrough cancer treatment.

Busy guy. Yet with all this hands-on strengthening and implementing and developing, it's someone else's fault when Novartis lets a profitable new drug slip away.

Something I always liked about UNC basketball coach Dean Smith is that when his team won, he deflected all the credit to his players. When the team lost, however, he always used the word "we." Useful advice for a manager at any level — maybe even for a superstar CEO.

Posted by Woodlief on February 18, 2007 at 07:51 AM