The Eagle Blog

Book Review – Derailed

Book ReviewDerailed. Five Lessons Learned From Catastrophic Failures of Leadership … by Tim Irwin

This is a book that focuses in on the failures of six high profile leaders, and what was the cause of their failure. The people profiled here (and I NEVER want to be profiled in this way!) are …

Robert Nardelli at Home Depot;
Carly Fiorina at HP;
Durk Jager at Procter & Gamble;
Steven Heyer at Starwood Hotels & Resorts;
Frank Raines at Fannie Mae; and
Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers.

I felt that there were a few overriding themes through these failures …

The first was incredible arrogance and mega-egos. I don’t think would be a shock to anyone, in fact I don’t think you can get into one of those positions unless you have a pretty healthy opinion of yourself! Perhaps, understanding that fact, it is important for strong leaders to recognise that they need checks and balances and that they need to have the right governance surrounding them.

The second thing that jumped out at me was those leaders who caused a significant change (for the worse) in their company’s culture were setting themselves up for failure. People join a company and stay there because they like to work there … changing a corporate culture can be a good thing, but it needs to be done carefully without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The third thing that jumped out was that these people were all incredibly competent in some area or areas of their jobs, but nobody is that good at everything. It is important not to let your weaknesses drag you down … so you need to plug those gaps perhaps by trying a little harder in those areas, but also by surrounding yourself with complementary skills AND trusting their judgement.

Certainly for Lehman Brothers and Fannie Mae the economic meltdown was a major factor in the demise of their leaders. The question remains whether they were a part of the cause … or were they caught in its destructive path. Either way their job was to steer their companies in the right direction and that didn’t happen.

Irwin suggests that there is a predictable process that occurs over time, before the “derailment”. He talks about the following Stages;

Stage 1. A failure of self awareness (or awareness of others). Empathy did not factor much in the character of these people.
Stage 2. Hubris … Pride before the fall. These people generally felt that they were the “centre of the universe”.
Stage 3. Missed Early Warning Signals. There were plenty of signs that things were not going so well in all of these companies … but no-one took on the leaders.
Stage 4. Rationalizing. Even when it is clear to the leader that they are in trouble, they will rationalise themselves into thinking they can fix it.
Stage 5. The Derailment. The author was particularly hard on these leaders because he felt that even as they left office, they did not do so with dignity which further hurts their companies in addition to their own credibility.

As the book suggests, the author cites five lessons to be learned.

Lesson 1. Character trumps competence. I would have suggested it a little differently … you have to be good at what you do, you ALSO have to have the strength of character to be humble when necessary.
Lesson 2. Arrogance is the mother of all derailers. It was there in spades with these guys it appears.
Lesson 3. Lack of self awareness seems to be a key factor with all of these leaders.
Lesson 4. We are always who we are … especially under stress. I guess the author is suggesting that these leaders demonstrated their character under stress and were lacking.
Lesson 5. Derailment is not inevitable … but unless there is intervention it is probable.

There are some interesting parts to the book, but some of the conclusions are a little bit of a stretch. To my mind, arrogant overbearing CEOs exist in spades and don’t implode, because they have good governance, because of circumstances, because of their management team. He might just have easily have suggested these were high profile failures, the details are interesting but it generally comes down to a huge ego with no way of keeping it in check.

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