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Profiles in Career Derailment of High-Flying Executives

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Learning from one’s own mistakes is a sign of some intelligence.  Wisdom – born of intellect and experience – is about learning from the mistakes of others.  For the countless mistakes I have been privileged to witness, enabling me to learn without the requirements of duplication (and to those that made them), I express my gratitude  — Arthur Rosenberg

Intelligence is learning from your own mistakes – Wisdom is learning from someone else’s mistakes – Idiocy is not learning from either…  — Unknown

A nice sentiment from Rosenberg, “Thanks for demonstrating a catastrophic failure in your career, business, or project.  Now I can learn from it  – I express my gratitude.”  Nice.  Your mistake to my benefit.  Make more, I want to learn more.

If more people would study failure as much as they study success then perhaps (preventable) mistakes would not be repeated over and over again.  Yet, some people never learn.  The value of “not learning” from the mistakes of others is simply to produce yet another validation of a well-documented personal behavior, inability to plan, or failure of execution that leads to failure.  How many times do we need to repeat the same experiment, get the same outcome, and not codify and internalize the basic principles of what can be learned from these opportunities?

Will companies make the same mistake as Motorola did with the Iridium project?  Is it at the point yet where this effort of Motorola is taught as a case in just about every Business School in the world?    Why is it  taught as a case?  To embarrass people?  No.  To learn from it.  Will bloggers ever stop writing about this mistake – made 20+ years ago –  that cost Motorola shareholders 5.2 billion dollars?  No, they won’t stop writing about it; and yes, companies will repeat the Motorola Iridium mistake, in one form or another, again and again not learning from the past.  Here’s the warning as recently as November 2010 about repeating Motorola’s mistakes ( read ).  Eighty percent of new small businesses fail within the first five years.  Why?  They fail for the same reasons, decade after decade.  Many reasons that small businesses fail are avoidable – if only these small business owners took the time to learn from the small business owners that failed before them.

So Tim Irwin is going to help you out by profiling and describing catastrophic career  failures of some high-flying corporate executives.  The purpose of these profiles is in line with Rosenberg’s quote above – why follow the path of known career derailment?  Is yet another demonstration of a known principle necessary?  Will you provide that demonstration?  If so, we owe you our gratitude for the validation… and condolences.  But what’s the point of demonstrating a well-known principle at the cost of your career and potential for advancement?

Do you need to be a high-flying executive to take this advice from Irwin?  No.  It’s amazing these folks got as far as they did.  But, you have a lifetime to develop career-derailing behaviors.  For some people it happens earlier rather than later.  For those who develop these career-derailing personal behaviors early then surely career advancement is limited – struck down in the prime of their life before they reach the limits of their intellectual or domain-specific competency.

Who are the high-profile executives in Irwin’s study?

 Bob Nardelli
Carly Fiorina
Durk Jager
Steven Heyer
Frank Raines
Dick Fuld

What are the lessons learned?

From the “Profiles in Failure” (read an alternative), here are five behaviors that will likely derail your career:


The six leaders profiled earlier in the book are all exceptionally competent. They are impressive in numerous respects, and all have track records of exceptional accomplishment. If we aspire to leadership, we should seek to be as smart, as disciplined, as focused on achieving difficult goals, as strategic, as insistent on the creation of processes that ensure quality, and as committed to finding great people to man our organization, department, or team as they were. Great leadership includes all these and many other qualities.

However, the glaring truth is that a leader is only as good as the character of the leader. While competence is absolutely essential, our character ultimately makes a greater impact on what we accomplish in our work and in our lives. Character as expressed in authenticity, wisdom, humility, and courage must ultimately form the substance of who we are if we want to have great impact.


While a failure of character can manifest itself in many ways, the most foundational and most self-destructive is arrogance. Just as humility seems to be at the epicenter of leadership effectiveness, arrogance is commonly at the root of a leader’s undoing . . . and ours. The specific derailers that rendered the profiled leaders incapable of continuing in their positions varied, but there is an underlayment of arrogance in every one of their derailments.

Arrogance takes many forms. The most rudimentary is the self-centered focus that fosters a belief that I am central to the viability of the organization, the department, or the team. The resulting dismissiveness of others’ contributions is inevitable.

When arrogance blossoms into hubris, a sense of entitlement results. “This place can’t function without me, and I deserve special perks.” I’ve seen this attitude in CEOs of huge companies, and I’ve seen it in secretaries of mom-and-pop companies. It’s not a function of the size of the organization or the level of the person in that organization.

Aloofness, being critical, self-promotion, and not listening to others all tie to arrogance. Even when our achievements are modest, arrogance can exist. We need to be ruthlessly intolerant of this toxic character compromiser when we see it in ourselves.


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Written by frrl

December 16, 2010 at 3:36 am

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