The Most Important (and Common) Leadership Lesson of 2013
BY Les McKeown
I've been particularly struck by a single recurring theme I've seen play out over the year.
The list of events--and people--that could be cited in a review of leadership lessons in 2013 (for good or bad) is long. The cultural shifts being attempted by Pope Francis; the use of social media in the aftermath of the Boston bombing; the backstory to the Twitter IPO; the achingly slow economic recovery and how various business leaders responded--these and a hundred other stories contain much about leadership wisdom (and otherwise) that we can learn from.
I've been particularly struck, however, not so much by a series of unrelated events such as those above, but by a single recurring theme I've seen multiple times this year, in numerous environments.
Briefly put, it goes like this: Leader achieves 'mojo'. Leader is recognized and lauded. Leader develops hubris. Hubris breeds a bubble where contrarian views and speaking truth to power is discouraged. Hubris + bubble kills mojo.
Here are just five examples of this pattern in action, from the many I've seen this year:
1. RIM (aka Blackberry). Blackberry was, for many years the market leader in so-called smartphones (hard to believe that in the era of the iPhone and Android, but that's more or less the point). That market dominance led it to do some very dumb things (are you listening, Tim Cook?), eventually retreating into a senior management bubble that resulted in atrociously bad decision-making.
RIM is currently on the chopping block, waiting to see who will come in and pick up the pieces for cents on the dollar.
2. Marissa Mayer / Yahoo. While at Google, Ms. Mayer was lauded as a genius and feted by the press. She arrived at Yahoo with her reputation very much in full sail before her. Her first executive action (more or less) was to surround herself with people she knew, thus pretty much guaranteeing she'd be operating in a bubble from day one.
Now into her second year, Yahoo's long-lost mojo is nowhere to be found, and Ms. Mayer's is deflating faster than a bean bag with a hole in it.
3. Steve Ballmer's exit at Microsoft. Microsoft once ruled the business world. Top of every top ten list, it seemed destined to eat everything in its sight. Then Steve Ballmer became CEO (to be fair, that was just bad timing; in retrospect, it is obvious that B Gates Esq. headed for the exits at least partially because he knew he had no answers for what was about to happen).
Most damagingly, Ballmer pretty much constructed his own private bubble. Passionate in his hubristic belief that so long as he said it, it (whatever 'it' was) could - and would - be done, and convinced that so long as he loudly trashed any competing product or service that would be the end of it, Ballmer oversaw the rapid decline of Microsoft into The Big Rut.
Forget all the talk about a super-CEO taking over Microsoft and turning it around - its mojo is gone, and the only hope for a future is a breakup into four or five competing companies.
4. The rollout of Obamacare. There is no doubt that the election of President Obama was a transformational moment in US and world leadership. There is even less doubt that Barack Obama began his presidency with enormous mojo. But as the undoubted and unavoidable flood of 'tick-tock' stories about the debacle at the heart of the launch of the Affordable Healthcare Act will undoubtedly show, that mojo quickly morphed into hubris. Add to that the airtight bubble that is the Obama White House, and it's not surprising that this became a train wreck in the making.
5. Snapchat's rebuffed acquisition offer. Ohhhhh, tech world, how we love you for your wonderful gadgets and your adorable idiocy. A single app sells like crazy (mojo), its founders turn down a reported $3bn from Facebook and a rumored $4bn from Google (hubris), and...sigh, I'm tired of even typing this it's so predictable. Just Google 'Andrew Mason's life after Groupon'. Apparently Snapchat's founders didn't.
What this means for you: This list could go on. Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase; News International and the Murdochs; Blockbuster-- and those are just the bold-faced names - it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of similar patterns playing out in hundreds, if not thousands, of small and medium-sized businesses. It happens all the time.
The lesson? Stay humble, always. The greater your success, the more you need to stay in touch with fresh opinions and perspectives and welcome real, truly challenging feedback.
Looking for more lessons on how to lead? Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track - and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.