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2011 was a bad year for business leadership

Jan 02, 2012 Business Daily, Leadership

“This was a year, sadly, when examples of poor leadership (bad decision-making, selfish actions and inexplicably bone-headed moves) seemed to outnumber the good.”

JENA MCGREGOR, The Washington Post (Dec 19, 2011)

As we end another year, we in the business world have to concede an uncomfortable fact: 2011 was not a great year for corporate leadership.

Too many CEOs have been involved in inexplicably bad decisions, as The Washington Post pointed out last week. Despite their vast experience and sterling CVs, business stewards seem increasingly prone to serious leadership gaffes.

Let’s start with the heads of RIM, maker of the famed Blackberry phone. How exactly does one destroy a market share as dominant as the Blackberry enjoyed just a few short years ago, and watch a share price plummet as much as 77% over the year? Answer: you place not one, but two CEOs who don’t get it at the helm. As this column commented in August, RIM is run by a coterie of insiders who all see the world in the same way. When that view is plain wrong, there’s no one around to say so. The only salvation, it seems, will come from a sale of the company.

Move on to HP, once an equally dominant maker of computers, now on its 4th CEO of recent times, all hired as messiahs from outside the company. Why this company’s board carries on being allowed to choose CEOs by its shareholders is beyond me. It has laid to waste a proud legacy and wonderful heritage of innovation.

Let’s look at another company whose woes hit the headlines in 2011: the legendary Kodak. Kodak has been a slow-puncture that began some time ago, but this year it was forced to concede that Chapter 11 bankruptcy may not be far away. This for a company that once held a 90% market share in the US? Ironically, Kodak actually invented the technology that has eviscerated it: digital photography. It just didn’t understand the power of what it held in its hands.

And what about that Japanese icon, Olympus, now revealed to have been hiding losses of $1.7 billion on its books? At the time of writing, the Olympus board is still largely intact – and trying to influence its own succession instead of slinking off in shame.

The list could continue. India’s mobile telephony firms are ensnared in that country’s 2G scam – when government officials seem to have conspired with corporates to underbid for licenses some years ago. That has now put a brake on their global ambitions – not least in Africa. Essar’s India bosses were recently charged, and more charges seem likely.

Meanwhile, the Murdochs showed how ridiculous it is for a leader to use the “I never knew it was happening, honest” defence. Having created an “anything goes” culture, Rupert Murdoch can hardly hide behind the span and scope of his global enterprise and say he didn’t know his newspapers were doing bad things. But he did, and has suffered irreparable reputation damage late in life as a result.

We are not spared back home. The venerable CMC Motors has given us one of the ugliest boardroom spats of recent times, resulting in its suspension from the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Kenya Power seems more preoccupied with collecting awards for rebranding than giving its customers the one thing they want: reliable, affordable power. And too many Kenyan CEOs are proving to be tone deaf when it comes to listening to customers, ignoring or justifying mounting complaints about service.

If you are a business leader, learn from the bungling of your less competent peers in 2011. Leading a corporation is a big deal, and it should be done with great vigilance. It is a huge responsibility to take so many livelihoods into your hands, and we owe it our ecosystems and future generations to take this responsibility very, very seriously.

Way too many leaders are proving narrow-minded, self-absorbed, intellectually hidebound by previous successes, or just plain larcenous. I hope 2012 will herald the coming of a new order, one that sets high standards in delivery and integrity, and one that works for something way bigger than the personal payoff.

I wish you all a 2012 full of wealth – in its true meaning

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