Harry Truman's famous plaque would be an anachronism on the desk of most executives these days. "How quaint! How perfectly old-fashioned," observers would say, and marvel that anyone could still believe in that old saw: The Buck Stops Here.
Long before I moved to Durham, I spent a business lifetime (40-plus years) as a denizen of Madison Avenue, skulking around the executive suites of such well-known companies as Pillsbury, American Tobacco and Kellogg. That is how I discovered the Golden Secret of Business Success.
The modern executive's objective, as anyone seeking to find a responsible party knows, is not only not to stop the buck here, but to keep it from getting anywhere near his or her desk.
The reason for this epidemic of skittishness is that many executive hopefuls have learned that it pays not to make decisions if they want to percolate to the top echelon of their companies. If you never make a decision, they've learned, you are never wrong, you are never caught on the downside, you never have to explain away a mistake. If you are never wrong, you will, in the fullness of time, climb to the penthouse office you've dreamed of. Then, after a few years of bobbing and weaving, you can cash in your stock options and move to Arizona.
In the good old days, successful companies were often led by men and women (mostly men) who could truly carry the title Captain of Industry. They knew where they wanted to go and had a good idea of how to get there--no matter how many widows and orphans they steam rolled or how many legislators they had to buy.
But few of those in today's executive cadres have any idea how to make a decision. While at Harvard, Northwestern, Duke and Stanford, they learned marketing and finance, negotiation and manufacturing. They learned distribution and personnel management and corporate law. But they never learned how to make a decision.
One Madison Avenue CEO I interviewed for my book, "How to Never Make a Mistake," achieved his high office by making the same decision over and over; saying "yes" to every option, thus pleasing everyone except his clients. Another mighty beer baron achieved the chairmanship of his famous brewery by letting his advertising agency decide the important questions he faced. They got rich but their companies foundered and were sold to other owners.
The dot-com tragedies of the last two years are just one proof of the general inability of many high-paid executives to make decisions. Where have all the online grocers and a host of online shopping sites gone? Ask similar questions about the recent dips in the stock market. Anyone invested in Lucent must wonder who has been steering that boat, as its value has been halved and quartered. And one has to wonder which executive at Nortel, once a Wall Street gold mine, decided to pay $19.7 billion to acquire just $167 million in assets of three other high-tech companies.
These days, executive decisions often seem to be made against the grain of common sense, as if the final "yes" or "no" had been left to chance or whim. No wonder CEOs don't get fired as often as they should. They shield themselves by turning decision-making chores over to others.
Is there an answer? For a start, university business schools should start teaching a course called Decision Making 101 and establish it as one of the requirements for an MBA degree.