The Failure of Success

Not long ago, I was asked to speak to a group of 70 business leaders in Melbourne, Australia on the topic, ‘Leadership: More Than Competence’.

I was looking forward to this, as I believe we need to change the dialog on leadership and go beyond merely focusing on competency, skills and knowledge, which many popular leadership books address ad nauseam.  We also need to explore a leadership paradigm that addresses the growing disillusionment and disenchantment with our leaders.

During the seven years I worked as an executive in the U.S, I experienced firsthand the early, unsettling days of the Global Financial Crisis that began 2008/09. During this time I saw the collapse of the housing market, severe falls on Wall Street, companies letting go thousands of employees, and many major financial institutions filing for bankruptcy or being acquired by those in a stronger position.  Headlines were dominated by the fall of Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, the Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, and AIG.

Initially, we were in denial.  A lack of competency was never considered to be the issue; character, or rather, a lack of character was clearly identified as a root cause.  In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel, says –

The era of market triumphalism has come to an end. The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risk efficiently. It also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals and that we need somehow to reconnect them.[i]

Looking beyond competency

 There are many other scenarios where an absence of character has been evident. High profile ones include: Rupert Murdoch’s ‘News of the World’ phone hacking scandal; in 2001, Jeff Skilling, CEO of the Enron Corporation was convicted for hiding billions of dollars; and in 2005, Dennis Kozlowskis, CEO of the Tyco Corporation, and CFO, Mark Schwartz, were jailed for similar crimes.

None of us, however, are immune to moral failure or lapses in judgment, and sometimes it is closer than we think.  But the fact that this is occurring more frequently at every level of leadership, it is wise to reflect on what could be done differently in identifying and developing our future leaders.  What we do know is that successful people and successful companies can come undone through a lack of character. The Greek word for ‘character’ refers to how a person’s self is carved, marked, impressed, or branded.  In other words, a leader’s character is something that can’t be hidden.  It is ingrained in that person’s identity.

Where do we go from here?  We’ve got to look beyond mere competency.  It is interesting to note that in determining leadership potential and which candidates were most likely to succeed as leaders, the IBM Executive School discovered that there was no commonality in relation to skills and knowledge, but in values and attitudes.[ii]

Competency doesn’t appear to be the issue we are grappling with most. I would argue it is, character. André Delbecq alludes to this when he examines “the failure of success, the corruption of triumph, and the danger of celebrity.”[iii]

If character is going to play second-fiddle to competency, we will continue to face issues like some of the ones mentioned earlier, and shareholders, investors, customers, and donors will continue to feel increasingly vulnerable. If only we could become more competent in character.

What’s the bottom-line?

We must begin to change not only what we expect of our leaders, but be committed to starting with ourselves. Below are some questions to reflect on:

  • When I recruit people, do I look at competency as the most important attribute?
  • Do I affirm and reward others for their contribution in building a culture where people flourish, not just for their achievements?
  • Is there someone I am willing to be accountable to for my actions?

[i] Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (London, England: Penguin Books, 2012), 6.


[iii] Andre L. Delbecq, “The Spiritual Challenges of Power, Humility, and Love as Offsets to Leadership Hubris,” The Virtuous Organization: Insights from Some of the World’s Leading Management Thinkers, eds. Charles C. Manz et al., (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2008), 97.


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