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Book focuses on how to best make decisions

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``Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Crisis,'' by Michael A. Roberto (Wharton School Publishing, 304 pages, $26.95 )

Painful flashbacks of the February 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster surfaced for millions of Americans nearly three weeks ago when a chunk of foam insulation flew off shuttle Discovery's outer fuel tank during liftoff.

Their fears intensified when NASA honchos announced that an astronaut would have to undertake a spacewalk to fix the shuttle's heat-resistant tiles. Then came the announcement that the manned space program would be put on indefinite hold to study the problem of flying debris. Space watchers around the world understandably wondered why that problem had not been fixed before Discovery was launched.

Harvard Business School management professor Michael A. Roberto may have supplied the answer in his new book, ``Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer.''

Fortuitously for Roberto, his book hit bookstores while Discovery was still in orbit.

No, it's not about Discovery or the space program. Its subject is leadership and how the best strategic decision-making is accomplished by businesses and other organizations.

In that context, the author makes repeated references to the Columbia disaster and the culture that prevailed at NASA at the time.

Some NASA engineers, Roberto writes, became concerned about the size of the debris that flew off Columbia when it was launched in 2003. They formed a debris-assessment team, but their concerns were discounted by higher officials who maintained that the debris was not a flight risk and that they couldn't do anything about it anyway.

Members of the debris-assessment team asked for more imagery and data but were rebuffed repeatedly by higher-ups, who continued to insist that it was not a risk because it had happened repeatedly on successful shuttle missions.

That attitude, Roberto writes, reflected a behavioral model, developed over decades, that stifled effective communication between engineers and managers. That problem, he maintains, dated back to the Challenger disaster.

He quotes former astronaut Sally Ride, a member of both commissions that investigated the tragedies, as saying, "I think I'm hearing an echo here."

What she meant, Roberto said, was that the roots of the problems were the same, even if the technical causes were different.

"NASA had not solved the systemic problems that had inhibited candid dialogue and debate about technical concerns 17 years earlier," Roberto writes.

NASA is one of several nonbusiness examples he cites to illustrate what happens when businesses and other organizations discourage debate.

Dissent and divergent points of view can bring positive results, Roberto writes. He includes as an example President Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis.

"The president took charge of the decision process, knowing that he would not lose authority or control by offering others an opportunity to express their views. No one perceived Kennedy as weak or indecisive because he stepped back to give others room to state their case before he declared his own views on the matter," Roberto writes.

Roberto, of course, is by no means alone in advising leaders of businesses and other organizations to respect and encourage diverging views. But he separates himself from the pack with an in-depth exploration of the human and organizational obstacles that can inhibit sound decision-making processes.

In that connection he offers enlightening insights into how leaders can recognize and overcome a "culture of yes," a "culture of no" and a "culture of maybe," three serious obstacles to organizational success.

To sum up the thrust of Roberto's process-centric approach to leadership and decision-making: How the buck got there is just as important as where it stops.


(c) 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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