Why head-in-the-sand leadership sinks the ship

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 1 October 2004



Kipp, M. (2004), "Why head-in-the-sand leadership sinks the ship", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 25 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/jbs.2004.28825eae.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Why head-in-the-sand leadership sinks the ship

Mike Kippmanages a strategic leadership advisory service that works with executives and governing boards who want to "write the next chapter" for their organization or themselves (mike@mikekipp.com).

Why Smart Executives Fail: What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes

Sydney FinkelsteinPublished by Portfolio

In 1812, Napoleon initiated the disastrous campaign that marked the beginning of the end for his regime. He crossed the Polish border into Russia with 430,000 soldiers in mid-summer and fought for months against an attack-and-retreat strategy over every yard of the nearly 600 miles to an abandoned and burning Moscow. With nothing to conquer, he marched back through sub-zero temperatures in the coldest winter in memory, re-entering his empire the following spring with a mere 10,000 survivors. This fascinating chapter in military history captures all the lessons of Sydney Finkelstein's eminently readable profile on Why Smart Executives Fail and is a treasure trove for both incumbents and aspiring strategic leaders.

In a thoroughly researched but user-friendly manner, Finkelstein maps four circumstances in which failure is most likely to occur: launching new ventures, promoting innovation and change, managing mergers and acquisitions and responding to new environmental pressures. He then outlines the habits of mind and the hobbles of being a follower that accelerate the tendency for things to go wrong. Most are variations on what I call the disempowering charisma of leaders, when they absorb only the positive projections around them, seeing the world as they wish it to be and resisting both messages and messengers to the contrary. In discussing the failings of corporate blindness, Finkelstein redeploys the wisdom he has shared so compellingly in the past – that understanding strategy is inseparable from understanding the strategists that create it. This is a critical message in business and in life. What gives the book "legs" is that it's a lesson that must apparently be relearned by each generation.

Nearly 25 years ago I was part of a company cited by Forbes as "one of the five best-managed companies in America." Pretty heady stuff if you're inclined to believe your own press clippings. We in management flipped through the magazine to see who'd been quoted and congratulated ourselves on our business acumen. Our chairman promptly reminded us that International Harvester, struggling in chapter 11 at the time, had led that list just two years before. "They give the trophies out when it's just about over," he said. That started a lively discussion of shifts in the vanishing market where we had made our reputation, no doubt saving us from drowning in our own shallow thought.

Although the author's academic credentials are impeccable, Why Smart Executives Fail is served up in a readable journalistic, not academic, style full of fascinating cases and quotes from such former stars as Iridium, Snapple, Webvan and Mattel. The breadth of examples will put readers from any industry in familiar territory (I found the Conseco story particularly instructive for my bank board).

This is also one of those rare monographs that stimulate insight beyond its primary thesis. Taking on the common view that "we just need to execute better," for example, Finkelstein argues that people are seldom "poor at execution." All-hands meetings announcing the "new world order" notwithstanding, people continue to perform masterfully against their own, more enduring views of reality. This contrarian's notion allows the reader to immediately see the photo negative – that leaders don't resist focus, they just find opportunity so seductive that it seems as if they do. Finkelstein's treatment of his material is such that this happens throughout the text, making it an even richer text than he had perhaps intended.

Sales of this book, unfortunately, may be dampened by the inherent hero worship of business book shoppers. Even though we all know that people learn best from their mistakes, this is a country weaned on John Wayne and addicted to the attribution error, the "guy" at the top who is either the goat or the great. "Who wants to read about failures? Have you got the Jack Welsh book?" Those who do dig in may fault Finkelstein for being weak on prescription. Nearly 300 pages in, he is still dissecting stumbles, rehashing the same cases for new twists on how to avoid success. In my view, though, if you've got to ask for formulas, they won't matter. Why Smart Executives Fail can't be read without seeing that the only workable prescription is a more authentic, more reflective and more inclusive style of leading, particularly through the four gates of hell.

We are heirs to the world we believe in, and by and large, we believe in a simpler world than the one we are presented. In a market that produces nearly 8,000 business books a year, Finkelstein's makes the "get real" case as well as it has ever been made, with evidence from every quarter of the legacy of hubris and the consequence of "reality" defined by personality. It deserves broad and enduring readership.

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