Key to Leadership Failure


One person can make a difference in the well-being of a company if they “get it” when others don’t. If you fail to hire such people, if you do not include them in the discussion during a crisis, you are more likely to see a problem worsen or repeat. What makes them different? They are “principles first thinkers.”


Time and again I have seen clients analyze a situation, take action only to see the problem worsen or repeat. As Prof. Neustadt advised in his book, Thinking in Time, people often ask “what should I do about this?” before they ask “How should I think about this?” and are trapped in wrong assumptions, wrong beliefs and flawed analogies.

Abe Ankumah, CEO of a network software company, interviewed by Adam Bryant for his Corner Office column in the New York Times, said: “I look for “first principles thinkers” when I hire.” And when he assembles a group in his company to solve a problem. What is a “first principles thinker?” Simply:

Someone who pursues the essence of a problem and instead of jumping to solutions examines big picture patterns and root causes of the problem (or opportunity). Then and only the do they jump to solutions.


Our last post was about a real life situation which focused on an observation by someone with fresh eyes and principles-first thinking: it is a mistake to view a new hire as added cost if it is really an investment with a return; and vice versa. That is why Google sometimes buys a small company to “acq-hire” talent and may even dissolve the business.

How do you find, attract and retain such people?


Why do so many hires fail, especially at senior levels? The top reason is not capability. It is fit with the company culture:

  • Moving too slow in a fast culture
  • Playing as a start in a team culture
  • Demanding more responsibilities before earning trust and respect
  • Applying success factors in product sales to a service company

If you view recruiting as a cost, you are probably struggling to find “best athletes” in key positions who stay with the company for years. And you have had new hires fail. Or are about to .If you view recruiting as an investment in the future of the company, you will spend on:

  • The process of engaging the candidates as people
  • Behavioral interviewing: asking questions which reveal ethics, assumptions about successful behaviors
  • Reference checking by your own senior people, not just by search professionals

One CEO client searching for his own replacement (and move to Chairman) did all of the above and more:

  • Had candidates sign a non-disclosure agreement, sent them financials and required them to create and present ad defend their own short (2 or 3 page) bullet point strategic plan
  • Organized dinners with candidate and spouse (in one case, with a board member)
  • Required an essay on the pros and cons of working directly for the founder
  • Asking questions in interviews focused on situations involving moral choices, ethics, beliefs about unwritten rules for success
  • Reference checks done by the most senior company executives, not just the search firm

As a result, they eliminated finalists who might have failed and uncovered a candidate better than the others. Still no guarantee, but a long way toward making a wise choice. This is kindred in spirit to what Disney has done for years in the way of “realistic job previews” for theme park employees.


What is more important than getting the right leaders into a company? Those who skimp on recruiting get what they pay for — if they are lucky. The smart leaders view this as an investment.

There is a terrific source of this kind of learning in an internet radio show and website with tools and ideas:

Jim Blasingame’s brain trust radio show

That’s just my view. What’s yours?


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What Made jack welch JACK WELCH

How Ordinary People Become
Extraordinary Leaders

by Stephen H. Baum (Random House)

Most leaders of American companies started out as ordinary people. What prepared them for the top job?

Countless more ordinary people of equal talent never developed the leadership core required to run the show. Why not?

"Lessons for life about the core leadership traits of character, risk taking decisiveness and the ability to engage and inspire followers."
--Jim Clifton, CEO, The Gallup Organization


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