Why CEOs Fail | David L. Dotlich

Summary of: Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top–And How to Manage Them
By: David L. Dotlich


In ‘Why CEOs Fail,’ David L. Dotlich sheds light on the challenge of leading organizations and on why two-thirds of CEOs fall short due to their pursuit of hard work and good intentions. This book summary highlights the 11 common personality flaws, or ‘derailers’, that can damage a CEO’s career and how to address them when encountered. By understanding and addressing these weaknesses, CEOs can learn to become better leaders who can navigate their companies through times of stress, chaos, or conflict more effectively.

11 Derailers of a CEO’s Career

Leading an organization can be challenging, and about two-thirds of CEOs fail due to their personality flaws. These flaws emerge during times of stress, chaos, or conflict. Fortunately, recognizing these weaknesses can help you address your mistakes and improve your performance. The 11 common flaws include arrogance, melodrama, volatility, excessive caution, habitual distrust, aloofness, mischievousness, eccentricity, passive resistance, perfectionism, and eagerness to please. CEOs and executive committees who become aware of these traits and openly discuss them can benefit the entire company.

The Perils of Arrogant Leadership

Confidence is an essential quality of successful leaders, but it can easily tip over into arrogance, leading to disastrous consequences. Arrogant leaders refuse to consider dissenting viewpoints, which can be corrosive. Arrogance also makes it difficult for leaders to admit their own mistakes. The downfall of Enron CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling is a cautionary tale for today’s leaders. Skilling started out with self-confidence that imbued his employees with a sense of mission and convinced investors of Enron’s value. However, as his pride grew, he became increasingly dismissive of dissenting viewpoints and belittled other companies. When Enron eventually collapsed, Skilling refused to accept responsibility for his role in the crisis. The story of Al Dunlap, the disgraced head of Sunbeam, offers another example of self-confidence run amok. A domineering leader who bulldozed dissenters, and pumped up the stock price, Dunlap’s arrogance ultimately led to his downfall. The lesson for today’s leaders is clear: self-confidence is good, but it must be balanced with humility and a willingness to listen to others.

The Perils of Melodramatic Leadership

Strong leaders who overuse exaggeration and emotion risk undermining their credibility and demotivating employees, according to this book. While charisma and confidence can be useful tools, leaders like former Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier and ex-Qwest Communications head Joseph Nacchio took it too far, prioritizing personal image and grandstanding over profits and team dynamics. When leaders consistently make every project seem like the most important in history or demand unreasonable actions, employees become cynical and disengaged. The key is to strike a balance between confidence and excess, being mindful of the impact on the organization and individuals.

Mastering Mood Swings

Successful CEOs like Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs utilize mood swings to their advantage, but it is crucial to maintain control. Losing control of one’s emotions paves the way for leadership ruin. A CEO with uncontrolled volatility can make the team feel uneasy, prompting them to walk on eggshells around them. Privately, passive-resistant people have their agenda, which seldom aligns with what they portray publicly. Halsey Minor, who headed CNET Networks, could not manage his volatility, leading to a significant downfall. To become a successful leader with controlled volatility, one needs to change behavior for effect by putting up an act to motivate or cow people. In contrast, uncontrolled volatility makes one a slave to their emotions. Underlings avoid bringing information that might provoke the previous ones’ outbursts, leading to self-defense measures such as keeping a safe distance. Therefore, it is essential to maintain control of mood swings to achieve successful management while utilizing them to influence team performance positively.

Balancing Prudence and Risk

Being overly cautious in business can be costly and detrimental to decision making, just as much as being reckless. While it’s important to consider worst-case scenarios and take necessary precautions, being fixated on them can lead to paralysis. Cautious CEOs move slowly as they weigh the potential consequences of their decisions, while overly cautious CEOs hesitate to make any moves at all. The case of Motorola’s former CEO Chris Galvin is an example of how being overly cautious led to missed opportunities and lost market share. It’s essential to strike a balance between prudence and risk-taking to stay competitive in today’s business environment.

The Danger of Distrustful Leadership

A leader who constantly focuses on the negative creates an environment of paranoia and defensiveness. President Richard Nixon is a prime example of the damage caused by habitual distrust, having taped his conversations and gathered information on adversaries illegally. While it’s important for leaders to be aware of self-serving or politically motivated individuals, an overly distrustful approach can be harmful. A prudent leader should seek a balance between healthy skepticism and trust in their team.

The Danger of Aloof CEOs

Aloofness in CEOs can lead to catastrophic results, as it breeds blind spots that can harm the organization. While it may seem fitting to maintain distance to avoid office politics and accusations of favoritism, the lack of soft skills can be devastating. Rick Thoman’s experience as the CEO of Xerox highlights the danger of maintaining excessive distance from the workforce. Fostering a chilly environment and withdrawing during a crisis are some of the warning signs of an aloof leader. Although being a perfectionist may appear positive, it can lead to losing sight of the significant developments in the company. While shyness may be the cause of aloofness, taking steps to be more open and expressive can help promote teamwork. Leaders should avoid being too volatile or melodramatic but should recognize that controlled emotional outbursts can be effective in certain situations.

Want to read the full book summary?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed