Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why CEOs fail


'I have a gift for you," I say, as I hand the book to Heinz. He is the country manager of a multinational corporation in Thailand, and we meet regularly to learn from each other.

"Why CEOs Fail is written by David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo. The book identifies 11 behaviours that can derail your climb to the top - and how to manage them."

"What are those 11 derailers?" he asks, and I provide a list:

- Arrogance: you think that you're right and everyone else is wrong.

- Melodrama: you need to be the centre of attention.

- Volatility: you're subject to mood swings.

- Excessive Caution: you're afraid to make decisions.

- Habitual Distrust: you focus on the negatives.

- Aloofness: you're disengaged and disconnected.

- Mischievousness: you believe that rules are made to be broken.

- Eccentricity: you try to be different just for the sake of it.

- Passive Resistance: what you say is not what you really believe.

- Perfectionism: you get the little things right and the big things wrong.

- Eagerness to Please: you are trying to win a popularity contest.

"These behaviours can't be eliminated, because they are shadows of our strengths," he comments.

"That's right. The authors are executive coaches like me. They wrote this book based on their experience and on the work of psychologist Robert Hogan on Leadership Derailers."

The book has 12 chapters: 11 are on each derailer and the final chapter is on "Why CEOs Succeed". For each derailer, the authors use high-profile cases such as Enron's former CEO, or former US presidents, with compelling examples from their coaching practice. For each behaviour, a table draws a line between what should be and what could go wrong.

"What do you mean?" Heinz asks.

"For example, in arrogant behaviour, there are six pairs of behaviours. In the left-hand column there are six appropriate examples. In the right-hand column there are six bad examples that lead to problems. Let me tell you about the first pair. In the left-hand column: You're willing to fight for what you believe in. In the right-hand column: You're unwilling to give up a fight no matter what. Using these tables as checklist can be a wake-up call for a CEO."

"Interesting! Then what?"

"Once you know about this line, the authors show you signs and symptoms. For arrogant behaviour, here are some indicators: a diminished capacity to learn; arrogant leaders reinterpret data to fit their own worldview. Instead of taking new information and adjusting to it, this type of leader reconfigures the data to fit strongly held views.

"Thus, no learning takes place. Many CEOs today encounter people, product and organisation complexities they have no experience of. Too often, this doesn't stop them feeling certain they know what to do. They resist change and are unable to recognise their limitations.

"Then, the authors propose solutions. Here are some ideas for the arrogant leader to work on: determine if you fit the arrogance profile; find the truth-tellers in your organisation and ask them to level with you; use setbacks as an opportunity to cross back over the line before a big failure hits."

"Sounds logical," says Heinz.

"The authors say CEOs are more vulnerable than other leaders to these derailers. This is due, in part, to the pressures that confront the leader: being in the spotlight; feeling responsible for thousands of employees; dealing with intense pressure for short-term results while investing in the long term; leading in an era of incredible speed and complexity.

"In addition, the higher you go in an organisation, the less likely other people are to tell you about your failure-producing characteristics."

"That's true. What are common derailers you have observed in Thailand?" Heinz asks.

"I find six behaviours are quite common here: arrogance, volatility, excessive caution, aloofness, passive resistance and eagerness to please.

"Thai CEOs have two styles of arrogance. One is similar to that of Westerners. The other would be arrogance behind a smiling face and polite words that express totally the opposite idea to what you suggest.

"Passive resistance is another trait that is difficult to spot. We also have quite a lot of eager-to-please CEOs. They want everyone to be happy with their decisions. Hence, we end up with lot of indecisive CEOs."

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under the brand TheCoach. He can be reached at Copies of previous columns are available at

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