Elwood P Dowd (the guy whose friend was a six foot Pukka in Harvey) said, "Well, an element of conflict in any discussion's a very good thing. It means everybody is taking part and nobody is left out." He was absolutely right. It won't kill you to have to listen to a contrary opinion from time to time. In fact, listening to contrary opinions is about the only way to learn anything. Nonetheless, this Harvey philosophy of life seems to have fallen on deaf ears in far too many leadership circles.
This particular rant originated with Obama's appointment of Janet Yellen to the board of governors for the Federal Reserve. He went out of his way to create the appearance of diversification – a woman from California – without risking the possibility of having a contrarian thinker mucking up the works. You see, although she happens to live in California, Ms Yellen is a Yale grad and former Harvard prof, so she can be counted on to continue the groupthink in our economic leadership.
But this is not another Ivy League, political rant. It applies to manufacturing management in spades. Time after time after time I go into manufacturing companies and find that, if the CEO came from accounting and finance, his closest confidant and informal right hand person is the CFO. If the top guy came out of sales and marketing, his key adviser too often turns out to be the person in charge of sales and marketing.
The right hand man is typically the top guy's hand chosen successor, so the boss knows he has someone who thinks exactly as he does. The inevitable result is the same sort of groupthink. If the top person is from finance, he creates a financially driven organization, if he is a sales person then the company becomes sales and marketing driven … not because it should be from a strategic standpoint but because the ideas thrown on the table at the staff meeting are all the same and they all support the boss' bias.
I am not talking about 'yes men' so much as the fact that when you have ten people from the same background and the same education, you tend to get the same ideas from all of them. There is enormous power from diversity – but from true diversity – not the superficial 'woman-from-California-but-really-just-another-Ivy-League-economist" type.
Perhaps Harvey is not the most concrete source of the wisdom in encouraging contrarian thinking. After all, the movie ends without proof beyond all doubt of the existence of the big rabbit. Let's look at Abraham Lincoln, instead. He created a cabinet of contrarians. There was not a man among them who was given his position because of his friendship or tendency to agree with Lincoln. Quite the opposite was true. His cabinet could not agree with each other on anything, and they saved their strongest disagreements for Lincoln, himself. And he encouraged the disagreement.
The difference between the CEO's whose primary criteria for selecting staff is that they think exactly like he does, and a man like Lincoln is the difference between true leadership and its opposite.
Lincoln's cabinet was in perfect lockstep on the fundamental objectives – preserving the union and the abolition of slavery. In the same manner, the staff has to be in harmony on the vital objectives of the company and its cultural values. But encouraging diversity of opinion in how to reach those goals is vital. The strong CEO knows that such diversity creates a Darwinian dynamic that assures the best opinions survive. That strengthening of the plans through diversity is what too many companies are missing.
And it is what the Fed is going to miss with the appointment of another me-too thinker.