Successful leaders may have different styles, and different approaches to decision making, communications, and every other aspect of their role, but they all have good judgment, confidence, and the ability to inspire others. They challenge the current state, and they know how to get things done. You would think that these core qualities and skills would pretty much ensure success in any situation.
And yet, it’s not uncommon for once successful, high profile leaders to flame out at the top. I spent much of my career at Digital Equipment Corporation, where Ken Olsen, the company’s founder and CEO, built “DEC” into a $14B leader in the computer industry. He created a company culture with a highly engaged workforce that delivered outstanding products and best in class customer service. In 1992, Fortune Magazine named him one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs. And yet, just five years later, the Board asked him to step down as the company went through a tremendous downsizing before being acquired by Compaq.
So what causes a successful leader to sometimes fail?
Sometimes it’s a case of a leader who is, in effect, a “one trick pony.” In the technology world it’s certainly not uncommon for someone to start a company, create a breakthrough product, attract funding—and then prove incapable of actually building a sustainable business. And it’s not uncommon for someone who has been wildly successful growing a company to move on to a struggling organization and fail miserably at leading a successful turnaround.
Some of you may remember Billy Martin, who many years ago managed the New York Yankees. Known for his fiery personality as a player, he was first hired to get the young players on a losing team to believe in themselves—which he did. But then, as the players matured, the same extreme style that motivated them became unbearable to them, and Billy was fired by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Of course, the rest of the story is the when the Yankees started losing again, George rehired Billy to turn things around. Then the same pattern occurred and George had to fire him again. In fact, this same pattern of hiring Billy, winning, and then firing him because his players outgrew his style, happened four times!
While it’s certainly true that some leaders are essentially “built” to succeed only in certain circumstances, I think there’s a broader explanation worth examining. According to Barry Z Posner, author of The Leadership Challenge, “The Achilles heel of all leaders is believing they will never fail…” Or, to reach back into the sports world, again, here’s a great quote by Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners: “There is another side [to ego] that can wreck a team or an organization. That is being distracted by your own importance. Ego… makes people insensitive to how they work with others and it ends up interfering with the real goal of any group efforts.”
In other words, it’s easy for leaders—and especially highly successful leaders— to start thinking that they have it all figured out, that they know more than anybody else about just about everything that affects their business. When this happens, they may become caught up in doing things their own way, to the point where they stop listening to others, especially when what those others are saying contradicts their own gut instinct and argues that change is necessary.
I can’t say that for sure that this is what happened to Ken Olsen. But the fact is that Ken was slow in recognizing that the personal computer would revolutionize how computing was done by the large organizations that were DEC’s customers. And he was definitely slow in seeing that the personal computer would become as common as the telephone or the television, in the process totally transforming the dynamics of the computer industry in which DEC had for so long been a leader. I’m sure there were people at DEC urging Ken to get ahead of this huge tsunami of change—and I can only assume that he didn’t listen.
Why should he? After all, he had built a $14B company.
It’s not easy to see that things have changed and you may not have it right anymore. It must be even harder when for a long time you’ve been successful doing it your way. It takes an ability to be really honest with yourself, to admit that you don’t know all the answers, and to have the confidence to reach out to your people, ask them for honest feedback, and engage them in becoming part of the solution.
If you want to develop this capacity for self-understanding, you can start by engaging in management reflection—time when you consciously step away from your busy schedule filled with day to day responsibilities and devote yourself to thinking deeply about your own strengths and weaknesses, about how you react when you make mistakes or encounter difficult situations. I firmly believe that is, as leaders, we take the time and do the hard work of becoming more self-aware, we have a much better change of not getting too locked into our old ways of doing things.
As leaders, we can choose —and I do believe that this is, or at least can be, a choice—to be open to new ways of thinking and behaving.
Let me know what you think.
How would you categorize your strengths? Are they useful in every situation? How often do you ask for feedback and act on the input you receive?