The seven habits of spectacularly unsuccessful executives

“Sydney Finkelstein, the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, published ‘Why Smart Executives Fail’ 8 years ago,” Eric Jackson reports for Forbes.

“In it, he shared some of his research on what over 50 former high-flying companies – like Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Rubbermaid, and Schwinn – did to become complete failures,” Jackson reports. “It turns out that the senior executives at the companies all had 7 Habits in common. Finkelstein calls them the Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives.”

Jackson reports, “These traits can be found in the leaders of current failures like Research In Motion, but they should be early-warning signs (cautionary tales) to currently unbeatable firms like Apple, Google, and Here are the habits, as Finkelstein described in a 2004 article.”

The seven habits of spectacularly unsuccessful executives:

1. They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environment. (Warning sign: A lack of respect.)
2. They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation’s interests. (Warning sign: A question of character.)
3. They think they have all the answers. (Warning sign: A leader without followers.)
4. They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them. (Warning sign: Executive departures.)
5. They are consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the company image. (Warning sign: Blatant attention-seeking)
6. They underestimate obstacles. (Warning sign: Excessive hype)
7. They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past. (Warning sign: Constantly referring to what worked in the past.)

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: This describes beleaguered RIM perfectly (except for #5 in which they’ve replaced “consummate spokespersons” with “babblers of nonsense.” DCW.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Ann T.” for the heads up.]


    1. Steve didn’t display numbers six and seven. As for number three, he did have all the right moves. He knew where to grow. He needed others to provide the technical answers.

      1. Agreed. Also, SJ was humbled by Apple’s success. You could see it in his eyes over the last 2 years. To put SJ in the same container with other CEO’s is a gross distortion or misunderstanding of his highly successful approach to effective leadership skills, new product development, and customer relations.

      2. Steve didn’t have all the right moves. Just think of the hockey puck mouse, the Mac Cube and the way the NeXT printer was implemented. However, Steve called it right about 10 times more often than any other tech CEO.

        1. I wish people would stop putting the Cube on the list as a failure, it was an amazing machine. I would have bought one except I had just bought a PowerMac G4 Tower.

          Personally I think that was the mistake they made with the cube it came out right after a PM upgrade and those of us who would have bought one had already bought a PM.

          1. I agree. The Cube should not be on these lists. I was waiting to buy the Cube’s next revision when – poof! – it was gone! I have one sitting just four feet from me. Still a nice design.

      3. Alcancun – I thought they same thing.

        Not Bill – you don’t think number 6? I think that was part of his genius, was seeing beyond the obstacles. There is a reason that RDF was so much a part of him. He used it to motivate people to do what they thought they could not, ie obstacles.

        re: 4, I think that he ruthlessly got rid of people that were not for the same thing – making great products.

        1 and 7 are the ones I think do not fit Jobs. 1 – he thought about business differently than most suits. 7 – he clearly was learning/refining his method, but the heart of innovation is not relying on past success.

    2. I agree. Steve Jobs could easily fit into 2,4, &5, meaning the conclusions are, premature, over-hyped, out of touch. Definitely written by a person who fits the #3 category but can’t see it.

    3. I believe it’s what’s known in business as the SCON fallacy.

      For example, all failing executives have eyeballs. Therefore, eyeballs must be a characteristic of bad executives.

        1. Don’t be taken in. He means scones, as in food. The acronyms this guy comes up with are all food tropes. It’s his shtick. And he’s the best there is. MDN commenters are specialists. You can become one too, if you dream up an endearing gimmick, a really unique take on things. It’s what makes MDN special, somehow turning cynicism into creativity in the face of the certain knowledge that we’re all gonna die.

    4. That probably depends on how you interpret them. But I don’t really see it. Take #1, for instance. There is a difference between acknowledging that you have a dominant position and abusing that power (thus the lack of respect warning sign). SJ respected those that deserved it, and I don’t think that he ever took Apple’s resurgence for granted. He was fully aware that Apple’s fortunes could easily reverse under poor leadership. With respect to #2, SJ clearly identified closely with Apple and shaped the company to match his vision. In this instance, it was a positive influence in most respects. With respect to #3, I would say that a more accurate description of SJ is that he knew what *wasn’t* the answer. By filtering out the chaff, he helped the organization focus on the wheat. I have no doubt that he sometimes became overly enamored with his own ideas. But the success of the company means that either his own ideas were generally good ones, or that he was sufficiently open-minded to change his mind in the face of valid opposition.

      As is often the case, a given character traits can lead a person either extreme – great success or great failure – depending upon its application, the discipline and introspection of the person, and the events and environment in which the person is operating.

      1. +1

        As for #5, that was Steve but in a good sense. He was obsessed with Apple’s image but that was mainly as a result (reflection?) of his philosophy…simple zen-like design in his products, that Apple was a progressive (they hired some conservatives and some other more visible minorities hahahah), caring (always rated as the best in customer service) company.

    5. There never was a Saint Jobs. He knew that. He left Apple (voluntarily I need point out) because knew he needed experience. When he came back to Apple, he brought that experience with him. He often spoke about his errors and faults. One of the things that made him remarkable was that among his obsessions was the desire to constantly LEARN and GROW. He inspired Apple to do the same. That is one way Apple’s culture, after the return of Jobs, became and remains consistently entrepreneurial. Dive into change and put the best of it to work for you. It’s not that ‘change is good’, it’s that good change is good. You have to have the ability to know the difference.

      1. Jobs didn’t quite leave Apple voluntarily… Not that he had a gun to his head, but Apple was not only not his any more, and he didn’t really have a job there.

        And while he obtained lots of experience upon leaving, it wasn’t his choice to leave to seek out this experience.

  1. Forbes’ Eric Jackson is pulling kind of a fast one here. It’s a nothing article—simply quotes from a 2004 article based on a 2003 book. Not breaking news. Not rumors. Not information. Just “Apple, Google, and Amazon had better be careful to not do what RiM did”!

      1. Not sure what you’re asking, Derek. I didn’t intend to imply that Finkelstein’s book wasn’t relevant or worthwhile, only that Forbes’ Jackson didn’t bring much himself.

        The book itself uses the case study technique to make his points 1-7. His example CEOs were

        1 Samsung’s Kun-Hee Lee
        2 Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski
        3 Rubbermaid’s Wolfgang Schmitt
        4 Mattel’s Jill Barad
        5 Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski
        6 Webvan’s George Shaheen
        7 Mattel’s Jill Barad

  2. I completely agree with these aspects. The key characteristics of an unsuccessful executive(actually, leaders in general) are numbers 3, 4, and 6.

    (3) Executives/leaders who think they can solve any issue on their own are not going to get far. It is always best to discuss the issue with some of your higher position employees who may be familiar with the issue. For example: if your company is having financial issues. Go have a meeting with your financial department heads and try to think of a solution to raise profit. Propose you idea, then ask them for their input. This way, they can point out any concerns, risks, and flaws your plan has and you all can come up with a plan that all can agree upon. two heads are way better than one.

    (4) there is always a reason why people agree or disagree with you. Sometimes, these Reasons are worth considering. If you just eliminate anyone against an idea of yours without asking them why they may feel that way or think that, you just sound like a jerk. And they might even have a point for think what they do.

    (6) People who underestimate obstacles often run into problems. Take on every obsticle you come across with care. And plan ahead. Include backup plans in case your primary one fails. Also constantly re-evaluate how well your plans are working to make sure there is no problems. Dont always rely on what worked in the past(yes, this is overlapping to number 6 but the two have a lot to do with each other). What worked before might not work today.

    I have really have not taken many leadership positions but these three factors are the most important things to consider when taking on a leadership role. You need to be open to ideas. Yes, some employees may not agree or listen to you (sometimes for rediculous reasons like they think your being too strict when in reality they are being lazy and slowing down production, or they don’t listen to you because they hate you for whatever reason). But that’s just how life it. You can’t please everyone.

    Heck, I recall back in high school when I was chosen by my teacher to lead a group in some project and some of my classmates would just ignore me because I was not as cool as they were. We didn’t do too well because of this but when i was assigned to a different group later that semester, we did so well that those other jerks were actually jealous of what we did and regretted not accepting me.

    Everyone is different. As a leader, you need to respect all your employees and remember that you are not “a king”. There are officials higher than you that gave you the position. And they can take back what they gave you if you are not wise.

    Yes, it is not always easy to fire someone but thinking like this always encourages me to do my best and not become abusive.

  3. well, that list pretty well sums up the majority of current corporate executives and _every_ federal office-seeker of the last 40 years EXCEPT perhaps Carter, who was truly too naïve in the ways of partisan politics and was actually a very humble guy (to his own detriment).

    … and no, i don’t think i’m exaggerating one bit here. Alpha males of this generation are truly psychotic, that’s the only remaining way to the top.

    1. Kodak has been a company long in denial and now that film has largely seen its day come and go Kodak’s leadership has mostly been rearranging chairs on their sinking ship. Sad since I used ther products in the film industry for many years. In the consumer space Kodak’s products were not very good back in the 70’s & 80’s, film was what they did best.

  4. Steve Jobs is 1-6 but not #7. Steve also was not #2’s financial description. His salary at Apple was $1 and he lived modestly.
    There are exceptional people who defy batches of rules. Maybe #8 should be “Believing you are the next Steve Jobs?”

    #7 is the strongest trait of the list possessed by Steve Ballmer. Curious why the author did not include Ballmer in the list? If there is anyone steering a ship called Denial, and stuck in the past, it’s him.


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