The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives (Commentary)

Well, I decided not to talk about myself in this entry. Somewhat because I am not very interested in doing so, but mainly because I doubt anyone reading this really cares at this point. Maybe someday people will care more about who I am, but for now I’m pretty much a nobody.

Recently, I read a great piece in Forbes called “The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives” contributed by Eric Jackson. It is based on work done by Sydney Finklestein in his book Why Smart Executives Fail. It is a poignant parody of the Steven Covey book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. I wanted to expand on some of this article and hopefully bring some BTBL (Big Truth Big Lie) to the party.

Spectacularly Unsuccessful habit #3 of executives was especially interesting to me—they think they have all the answers.  Jackson summed up this trait of some executives this way:

Here’s the image of executive competence that we’ve been taught to admire for decades: a dynamic leader making a dozen decisions a minute, dealing with many crises simultaneously, and taking only seconds to size up situations that have stumped everyone else for days. The problem with this picture is that it’s a fraud. Leaders who are invariably crisp and decisive tend to settle issues so quickly they have no opportunity to grasp the ramifications. Worse, because these leaders need to feel they have all the answers, they aren’t open to learning new ones.

We have all seen this, haven’t we! This trait dovetails with habit #4 as well – they ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them. It immediately brought to mind a famous quote by General George S. Patton, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” Let’s face it, when the Big Truth is that an executive is in over their head and takes every step necessary to prevent that fact from coming to light it is only a matter of time before the whole organization is on its way through the U-bend. It is increasingly rare that executive can be seen admitting when they make a mistake or don’t know what to do.

What are the symptoms of this trait? Here are a few:

  • Major decisions are always a surprise to middle management and frontline employees. If secretiveness is the order of things within upper management it is usually not because the ideas are the best and can stand up to scrutiny.
  • The people that decisions affect the most are never included or represented in meetings. When upper management treats people like peons not only will there be resistance to change, there will often be major problems that could have been avoided by simply asking the frontline people all the possible ramifications of a proposed course of action. When the executive team makes decisions in a vacuum of input, they usually fail.
  • Solutions are always sought from outside the organization, i.e., vendors and consultants. Vendors should only be there to supply you with that which you cannot (practically speaking) produce yourself. Consultants are great because they bring in an outsider’s perspective and can supply beneficial information on how to accomplish what your organization has never accomplished before but others have. However, if outsiders are brought in by management to do what could have been done internally, then resentment abounds. When bad executives know they are not trusted by their employees they simply pay others to trust them.

Effective executives don’t shy away from input and they certainly should welcome people to think critically and point out potential flaws. As human beings we love to feel that we are always in the right; admitting we are wrong, especially when we think we could lose our jobs, is one of the difficult and rare. No amount of sheer force of will coupled with copious amounts of BS (bovine scatology) will make a bad plan work when it really needs to.

All of this reminds me of another quote by the great Patton, “Watch what other people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.” To be fair, there is a time when a leader must lead people into uncertainty. The other ditch that one can over-correct into from the dictatorship of bad executives is to endless bureaucratic egalitarianism where decisions are discussed to death and meeting after meeting results in nothing. This is wrong too! The correct path is the middle one; to realize that you don’t have all the answers and seek to hear opposing viewpoints. When an executive only consults with a few people and is cynical about other’s opinions this is the smoke, warning of the fire that they are going to bring the whole organization down in the blaze. Successful executives hire people who are not only experienced but good critical thinkers and not afraid to be the “devil’s advocate.”


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