Leadership Success and Failure:
The Arrogance Trap

by Judith Schechtman

Change is a constant in our lives these days, as are the questions about success, failure and lessons to be learned from both. The recent spate of corporate scandals raises many questions, not only about ethical practices -or the lack thereof - but about how seemingly successful leaders could fail so dramatically.

There is still much to be gleaned from studying what has not worked. We are clear that dishonesty and poor ethics led to the downfall of such formerly revered leaders as Jack Welch (GE), or Ken Lay (Enron), or Dennis Kozlowski (TYCO). But what about other less publicized but equally glaring failures such as Thomas Middelhoff, formerly of Bertelsmann AG?

Brilliant people are often hired specifically for their successes in other jobs. We have written about the pitfalls of looking only to tried and true leaders (see http://www.ta-stl.com/Leading_Trends_122002.htm) Another equally important aspect of hiring on the basis of past success is looking at the question of how this person succeeded and whether their style matches your organization.

All change requires, by definition, loss, adaptation, and reconstitution. Even welcomed new ideas and procedures necessitate jettisoning the old way to some degree. What we have learned over and over by watching change fail is that not enough attention and care is paid to the past - the history of what created a successful entity. Which leads us back to Thomas Middelhoff who was named CEO of a major German media company at age 44 (see the Wall Street Journal article by Carol Hymowitz at http://www.careerjournal.com/columnists/inthelead/20021218-inthelead.html). His vision for Bertelsmann AG was to expand the reach of the company internationally with the goal of taking this family-held business public. A lofty goal and one we have heard frequently in some fashion or another as we talk with leaders and read about their successes.

Mr. Middelhoff made at least one grave error - one of arrogance. He did not honor the past or find a way to bring the history of the company along on his journey into the future. He made decisions to sell off parts of the company that were sentimental favorites to the family owners and ones that had been profitable in the past. He communicated through the media to the public, and not directly to the owners for whom he worked nor to his employees. He ignored their wisdom and the lessons they had learned on their journey to building a successful company. Needless to say, he was soon ousted.

We all might say that we would never make this kind of error, nor would we likely be in the position of leading a massive conglomerate. However, when we are in too much of a hurry to implement a good idea, when we ignore the nay-sayers because we think they are just negative folks entrenched in the past, when we forget to talk face-to-face with all of our constituents, to honor the past as we move toward the future, we too are acting with the kind of arrogance that Middlehoff exhibited and which led to his downfall.

Further, when we neglect to match our style of leadership and decision-making to the organization in which we operate, we run the risk of being seen as out of step, difficult, precipitous or otherwise problematic by many we are hoping to lead. It may take time to hear the history of how the institution got where it is, time to honor what is good from the past and determine a way to move the essence of it forward into the future, time to communicate; however, without taking this time, the most exciting and forward thinking change may never be successful. It is often said that change did not succeed because "they were not ready for it" or "they obstructed the path to change."

Perhaps, by thoughtful inclusion, those who were deemed obstructionistic could become the greatest allies to the new way.

The Challenge of Change

On another note related to the challenge of leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership recently published a reminder of the skills necessary to successfully navigate the opportunities and pitfalls of dealing with change.

"The leading reason managers with impressive track records and high potential get knocked off the career track is their inability or unwillingness to change. Some managers resist modifying their leadership style, believing it is something that cannot be changed. Others insist that whatever worked in the past will continue to work in the future."

The full CCL item is available at http://www.ccl.org/connected/enews/articles/0203chageisgood.htm, and includes more keys to adaptation amid changing circumstances.

What can we learn from the research and experience of a program such as CCL? Flexibility and adaptability become the watchwords. We need to keep learning - from formal and informal sources, from past mistakes and successes and from our colleagues and mentors. We must seek and be open to feedback from all sources. And we must exhibit the qualities of an emotionally intelligent leader - self-control, self-assurance and composure under stress. All these skills are ones we can learn, re-learn and polish. They are not beyond the reach of any of us.


Judith Schechtman is a Senior Associate in Triangle Associates of St. Louis, a national consulting and training firm specializing in individual and organizational change strategies for businesses in a variety of industries. With a wealth of experience coaching executives, physicians, nursing school faculty, and other professionals, Ms Schechtman serves on the faculty for the ISACS School Leadership Program, the ESCOP/ACOP Leadership Development Program, and the Missouri Physician Leadership Program of the University of Missouri Columbia School of Medicine. Ms. Schechtman may be reached via e-mail at: judy@ta-stl.com . Visit www.ta-stl.com for additional information.

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Copyright 2003 by Judith Schechtman. All rights reserved.

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