Dr. Tim Irwin



The Compass of a Leader


Early in my career, a client requested I meet with a prospective merger partner in the financial services industry. The schedule was tight, so for a week, I flew around in a private jet to various cities, and, at each location was whisked away to my meetings in a waiting, planeside limo. I stayed in beautiful hotels and generally had a bevy of people making sure that every detail of my trip ran smoothly.

By the end of the week, I was getting used to being treated like I was important and I drove home on Friday night a bit full of myself. Anne, my wife, greeted me at the door with her normal cheerfulness and then dropped the bombshell on me. One of the toilets was clogged, and a plumber wanted a budget-busting amount of money for the repair. This was not the sort of clog that a plunger would take care of with a few well-aimed thrusts. A cloth diaper was lodged in a region of the toilet I didn’t know existed and required a hands-on approach to solve. The sights, smells, and sensations were memorable. After several hours of immersion in the project, the toilet finally cleared. I felt like I need to be taken to the nearest hazmat center and sprayed down from head to toe for exposure to germ warfare. I went to bed that night in a really foul mood.

The next morning, I woke up laughing. Immersion in the toilet was actually a perfect way to end the week and bring me back down to reality. The toilet was real life, not flying around in a private corporate jet, staying in expensive hotels. We all need a good “in the toilet experience” every now and then to remind us who we really are.

In my new book, Derailed, Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership, I studied a number of CEOs who had been fired by their boards in recent years. While these individuals often had performed brilliantly in the past, they failed catastrophically in the jobs from which they were fired. They were like the engineers of huge freight trains who ignored critical warnings and went off the rails. Most of these individuals were ultimately fired, not because of a lack of competence, but rather a lack of character. A big lesson learned …“Arrogance is the mother of all derailers.”

One of the most revealing tests of a person’s character is power. We see in the six failed leader profiles in Derailed that power, in many cases, became self-serving. The “trappings” of power often tell a lot about character. Bob Nardelli created a nine car personal parking area for his cars underneath Home Depot’s corporate office. His private elevator went from his personal parking area straight to his private office on the top floor of the building without stopping on other floors.

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.” Arrogant leaders also seem to eschew feedback so beneficial to any leader. They become “truth-starved.”

Nardelli became known for arrogance and an alienation of the people he needed most. Regardless of Nardelli’s vision for the company, how could he ever achieve his objectives without the alignment, commitment, and loyalty of the Home Depot employees? The big lesson is that no matter how brilliant, charming, strategic, or commanding in presence a leader is, the consequences of a failed character are extraordinarily disabling and will bring down even the strongest among us.

Effective leaders must set direction, gain alignment among diverse constituencies, risk change, build high-performing teams, achieve results, go the extra mile and endure ungodly stress. To be enthusiastically followed, leaders must also be guided by an inner compass that fosters trust on the part of their followers. That compass is character.