Really, What Makes an Effective Executive?

Whenever I ask this question, I always hear the usual sacred mixture of “integrity,” “willpower,” “leadership,” and, of course, “charisma.” The most promising HiPos would proudly throw in “emotional intelligence.”

Those fuzzy buzzwords are supposed to make all aspiring executives salivate but none answers the question or offers at least a practical first step.

For example, the “emotional intelligence” concept, popularized by Daniel Goleman about thirty years ago, has been a universal bestseller and cash cow ever since. Being a combination of known personality traits, “EI” sells well but contains no intelligence. Rather, it is another variant of “faking good” behavior – the foundation of the concept’s mass appeal.

“An effective executive does not need to be a leader …”

It is surprising that a concise and clear guide on how to be an effective executive has been around for at least as long – but is not even close in popularity. Perhaps, the other author’s fatal mistake was to open the article summarizing the findings of his 65-year consulting career with these blasphemous words – “An effective executive does not need to be a leader …” – and instantly get to these less-than-glamorous points:

“They all followed the same eight practices:

  • They asked, “What needs to be done?”
  • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

Having explained these simple truths of executive effectiveness, he would then “throw in one final, bonus practice.

“This one’s so important that I’ll elevate it to the level of a rule: Listen first, speak last.”

“I’ll elevate this practice to the level of a rule: Listen first, speak last.”

The author’s name was Peter F. Drucker.

Drucker published this summary in June 2004. Today, almost twenty years later, hardly anything could be added to the list. Perhaps, Drucker would make more emphasis on employee motivation (he never mentioned “engagement”) adding two more bullets to his list:

  • They treated mistakes as learning opportunities
  • They would take the blame and pass the credit

The last two principles may sound too trivial, but most “leaders” can’t resist the temptation to highlight their wisdom against the backdrop of the professional inadequacy of their own subordinates. In today’s knowledge economy, such behavior drives team efficiency down to almost absolute zero.

For those who are especially partial to the popular concept of EI, here’s another observation. Although Drucker’s article was published by HBR shortly after Goleman’s famous article, there’s no mention of Goleman or his key idea of the EI. Nor is there any blissful theorising about “leaders” and “leadership.” I doubt the author or his publishers had not noticed that.

Today, the effectiveness of the executive depends on the ability to cooperate within the organization, and its “soft” psychological aspects become the drivers of effectiveness and managerial success. The eight principles in which Peter Drucker emphasized the human aspect of management were first published in 1967 – when Milton Friedman was working on his “shareholder value” doctrine – and more than ten years before Tom Peters has started his “Soft is Hard, Hard is Soft” lifetime crusade.

Would you not agree that it is the knowledge of the human psyche that makes an executive effective?