Creating catastrophic corporate collapse requires some truly awesome personal characteristics, argues Sydney Finkelstein. Unfortunately, they are often the very same qualities we profess to most admire and value in business leaders.
To be spectacularly unsuccessful requires some very special personal qualities. We’re talking about people whose failures were breathtakingly gigantic, who have taken huge, world-renowned business operations and made them almost worthless. They have caused thousands of people to lose their jobs and thousands of investors to lose their money. They’ve managed to destroy hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars of value. Their destructive effect is so beyond the range of ordinary human beings that it’s on a scale normally associated only with earthquakes and hurricanes.
The personal qualities that make this awesome scale of destruction possible are all the more fascinating because they are regularly found in conjunction with truly admirable qualities. After all, hardly anyone gets a chance to destroy so much value without also demonstrating a potential to create it. Most of the great destroyers of value are people of unusual intelligence and remarkable talent. They are almost always capable of being irresistibly charming, exercising great personal magnetism and inspiring others. Their faces have typically appeared on the covers of Forbes, Fortune, Business Week and other business publications.
Yet when it comes to the crunch, these people fail monumentally. The list of leaders who have failed spectacularly is not a list of people who weren’t up to the job. It’s a list of people who had a special gift for taking what could have been a modest failure and turning it into a gigantic one.
How do they do it? What’s the secret of their destructiveness? Remarkably enough, it’s possible to identify seven habits that characterise spectacularly unsuccessful people. Nearly all of the leaders who preside over major business failures exhibit five or six of these habits. Many of them exhibit all seven. Even more remarkable, each of these habits represents a quality that is widely admired in today’s business world. As a society, we don’t just tolerate the qualities that make leaders spectacularly unsuccessful; we encourage them.