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Manage like Mozart? All genius and charisma? Or more methodical like Salieri? Best to focus on teamwork

What brand of manager do we need in these times of such intense change? Summarizing a study by the Harvard Business Review, which claims that the figure of the innovative genius – the great leader backed by an enormous “emotional intelligence” (think Steve Jobs) – has had its day and that now is the time for those who are able to manage complex processes, engineers able to guide business systems with determination and a keen focus on linear development, Ettore Livini wrote, in La Repubblica (5 November), that Wall Street prefers a leader like Salieri over one like Mozart. It is a sort of “Salieri’s Revenge”, as Herminia Barra, a professor at INSEAD in Paris, noted as part of a reassessment of the role of the cold, methodical, and yet reassuring composer that was cast in the shadows in 19th century Vienna by the overwhelming genius of Mozart. In other words, we now need less charisma and more method. The Harvard Business Review study, in fact, has found that 24 of the 100 best-performing CEOs in America are engineers. They may be less charismatic than their predecessors who created the business, but they do bring a practical, pragmatic approach that results in great profitability and pleases shareholders as well.

Jack Welch, once the leader of the US multinational General Electric and long respected as a point of reference for any good manager, liked to say that leaders manage power, while managers manage the organisation. James Citrin, a senior executive at Spencer & Stuart, a leading recruiting firm, has also said that the time for revolutionary rhetoric is finished and that now it is engineers able to solve problems with logic and an architectural way of thinking – i.e. with an orderly approach to processes, relationships and responsibilities – that are proving to be the most successful today.

Is that truly the case, even here in Italy? In Europe, the culture of management has always been heavily influenced by the U.S., where it has been possible, thanks in part to a sort of “public company” capitalism, to build a sophisticated, rich theory of business management and general rhetoric over time. In Italy, however, for better or for worse, capitalism is still very heavily family oriented, with a unique blend of shareholders and business leaders who are heirs of the companies’ founders (and who have strong, unabashedly innovative, “Mozart-esque” personalities) and managers backed by that all-too-Italian culture of beauty, complexity and resilience (i.e. intelligent adaptability).

So perhaps it would be best to avoid these typically American formulas and remember that, even in business, we can still see a typically Euro-Mediterranean fascination with Napoleon. (As Ernesto Ferrero noted in La Lettura for Corriere della Sera on 2 March 2014, Napoleon, too, was a manager, combining planning and speed of action with an ability to understand and motivate people and take advantage of culture, thereby underscoring his dual role as innovator and legislator – a builder of new processes and regulator of their growth, a creative and an engineer of institutions.)

Perhaps we should pay closer attention to a new sort of lesson that also came out of the US, that of Walter Isaacson (editor of Time, the former chairman and CEO of CNN and now president of the Aspen Institute), who wrote the internationally best selling biography of Steve Jobs. He is also the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, published in October by Simon & Schuster, in which he claims that innovation in technology does not depend on individual genius, but is rather the result of teamwork.

Serena Danna, also writing in La Lettura for Corriere della Sera (12 October 2014), summarised the situation by saying that the next Steve Jobs will come in the form of a team, that the idea of the single individual who drives innovation is an illusion, and that genius arises through collaboration. Keith Sawyer, professor of innovation and creativity at the University of North Carolina seems to agree when he said, “When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”