It’s strange the things that trigger your ideas and attitudes about leaders. I'd just been on a train to Paris, catching up on a month’s worth of reading (I’m the kind of guy who tears out pages from business mags and newspapers and squirrels them away to catch up when I have the time). It’s messy, totally non-digital, deeply uncool, but it works for me. Often some of my best ideas come from reading some ink-smudged newspaper clipping months out of date.
In the midst of rapidly skimming through 30 or 40 pieces I’d collected, I was suddenly struck by one thing. Most of what I was reading was about failure, specifically CEOs who’d crashed and burned - usually taking a large slice of that year’s profits in severance settlements with them. “My goodness,” I thought, “there’s an epidemic out here. It’ worse than top-of-the-league soccer managers. CEOs are getting it from all sides, are we learning nothing about squandering all this talent? ”
I was still musing on this accident-prone CEO syndrome when I arrived to meet a client. Well, not a client actually, but hopefully soon to be one. I’ve known him for years. He’s just arrived into the hot seat of a large transportation firm. Lucky to be there, I thought, got fired about six months ago. Messy corporate divorce, but he looks OK – confidently exuding the air of man in charge of his personal destiny.
We shook hands, and I sat down across from his aircraft carrier-sized stripped pine desk. As I opened my folder, all my carefully hoarded clippings I’d been reading on the train, spilled, embarrassingly, to the floor.
“What’s that?” asked my host.
I quickly explained my dinosaur-like way of staying in tune with the times. As it was a very informal meeting, and I’d met him before, I also wished him luck in his new role, boldly referring to his last job and how I hoped it would work out well. He smiled at me. “Well after these last months, I reckon it’s not going to be too bad, at least I know how to play the game now.” He added, “You see I’m qualified. Got the t-shirt, been there done that. “
My host, then went onto describe in fascinating detail how he lost his job, how the forces massed against him had combined to bring him down. Over the next 30 minutes he itemized in detail what had happened, what he learned from each twist and turn and how he had got out clean, certainly richer but a whole lot wiser as well. By the end of it he had come across as a very professional operator, one I’d be happy to vouch for as a man who’d keep his head in any crisis that came along.
Finally, he sat back in his chair and said, “ So you see Rudi, getting fired taught me all I needed to know, to stay on top- it’s been my finishing school my post graduate business degree. I’ve an MBA from the best school money can buy, a stellar track record, but now I know how to play the game better than anyone else.” He went on, “I Can deal with boards, investors, analysts, the media, over-ambitious lieutenants. None of them concerns me now. Quite frankly, you can’t be a real leader unless you know how to recognize and deal with all those things happening to you every day. Now I know how to build loyalty in my team (I was just too busy before); avoid the sniping of the financial analysts (never bothered to take them seriously – now I do); ignored the media (I make sure I’m seen, heard and my image is polished like the brass plaque outside our HQ).”
Was taken aback by his words, and his enthusiasm, “ So what about the caring leader,” I asked, “ is it all just a fiction; are we led to believe that a CEO who takes care of his people is THE real leadership model we should aspire too? “
He stared at me for a good 20 seconds, saying nothing. Then he smiled and finally said, “That’s what the book says that’s what all the management courses preach, but that isn’t real-life. Quite frankly, the reason I’m worth this huge salary they’re paying me is for one thing. I’ve been fired – I survived and I learnt all the lessons better than anyone else. I have been shot at but now I’m bullet-proof Now when I come to choose my successor I know where I’ll be looking. “
He got up to leave, shook my hand warmly and opened the door for me. “Walk you down to reception,” he said, got to do my daily tour, keep the people pleased by knowing I look pleased too.”
So is it true, can you really get better as a leader by experiencing the seamy side of corporate existence? My betting is my new friend – and he’s a new client now - has got it right. So, go get fired, learn from it and be the leader you should have been all along!
This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Connect with him via Linkedin.