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By Robert Sutton
Professor of Organizational Behavior (by courtesy)
Stanford Graduate School of Business

Written For Psychology Today

One of my favorite CEO’s of all time is A.G. Lafley, who recently stepped down after running Procter & Gamble for a decade. There are many things I admire about A.G. His modesty and ability to listen — and I mean really listen, not just pretend — impressed me when I first met him in 2000, and when I spoke with again last year I found him unchanged, even after all the praise he has received.

But perhaps the thing I admire most about A.G. is that, in contrast to so many other CEOs (and management gurus and authors) he doesn’t pretend for a second that he discovered a new way to manage, or that his success resulted from any mysterious and complicated methods. One of his catchphrases is “keep it Sesame Street simple,” and indeed he spent a lot of time reminding people of simple truths, like “the consumer is boss.” He often exhorted his managers to focus on what happens at “two moments of truth”: when the customer encounters the P&G product in a retail setting; and when they actually use the product. Hammering on such old and simple themes, A.G. brought P&G back from the dark period it was in when he took over in 2000. The norms and example he set, plus the people he developed, are still enabling P&G to be a great company.

Cries for the reinvention of management and claims that we have to discard old models are made by every generation of gurus. But really, the ideas that work aren’t that complicated, and most of what is called new is really the same old wine in relabeled bottles. If you want to read a great book on this point, check out Robert Eccles’ and Nitin Nohria’s Beyond The Hype. When I read it for the first time, I realized that a big reason every generation thinks that its solutions are new is because it thinks its challenges are brand new. People can’t quite bring themselves to believe that managers of the past faced remarkably similar problems, found frustration and satisfaction in similar sources, and came up with similar solutions. Just as teenagers discover sex and can’t imagine that the fundamentals were the same for their parents, managers are convinced they are encountering forces and feelings that haven’t been seen before. And management theorists do little to disabuse them of that notion.

To this point, some years back when Jeff Pfeffer and I were writing our book on evidence-based management, I wrote Stanford’s James March (arguably the most respected living organizational theorist) to ask him for examples of truly breakthrough ideas. His response was “Most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimonial to hubris.” I promptly repurposed this into Sutton’s law: “If you think that you have a new idea, you are wrong. Someone probably already had it. This idea isn’t original either; I stole it from someone else.”

I am not denying that bosses work in different environments these days — the computer revolution and global nature of business have reshaped organizations, for example — but the fundamentals of being a good boss have changed a lot less than people claim. While writing Good Boss, Bad Boss I had occasion to compare studies conducted in every decade from 1940′s through the 2000′s, and they yielded very similar advice. Even studying pre-industrial people, anthropologists have concluded that the best leaders were competent, caring, and benevolent — and leaders who failed in any of these areas put their people at risk and had a hard time getting or keeping leadership positions. Research on the modern workplace, too, leads me to conclude that the best bosses strike a healthy balance between promoting performance and protecting their people’s dignity and well-being. I am using different language, but it seems to me that what constitutes a decent boss hasn’t really changed much in thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the formula seems to be easier to state than to put into action. Another consistent finding over time is that, if you’re a typical employee, your immediate supervisor is the most stressful part of your job.

The lesson from all this is that old, proven, simple, and obvious ideas on how to manage may be dull — and some may be outmoded now and then — but they are your best hope if you want to be a good boss.

But now, let me complicate my message just a bit, by recalling my own reaction to Jim Collins’ , MBA ‘ 83, blockbuster Good to Great (read more here). The hallmarks of good management and leadership Collins identified were consistent with much prior research — much of it more rigorous than his own (and he mentioned almost none of it). But there’s something so compelling about his telling of the story, and I think that has everything to do with his own sense of discovery. Maybe, as with teenagers discovering sex, management theorists — and managers — bring more passion to the experience when they arrive at the basics themselves.

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Great White Sharks Are a Rare Breed
  2. In Crisis, Follow a Visionary Leader
  3. The Great Recession: The Missing Remedy from a Third-World Perspective

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