5 leadership horror stories

Liz Truss long harboured ambitions for leadership but, like the hapless protagonist of so many a Hollywood Halloween classic, she belatedly learned the hard way that you should be careful what you wish for.

Her own Nightmare on Downing Street will surely go down as a case study in disastrous leadership. Miscalculations, intransigence, betrayal, screeching U-turns and a collapse in authority, all in the space of a few weeks.

For leaders in less rarefied and unenviable positions, it can be useful to reflect on a cold, near-Halloween night on the calamities of their forebears, both to heed the warnings of history and to remind yourself that things could be much, much worse.

Gerald Ratner

You may think you’re safe among friends, but a CEO should always choose their words carefully, as jewellry magnate Gerald Ratner found to his cost after uttering this infamous throwaway line during a speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”, I say, “because it’s total crap.”

I once sat next to Gerald on a bus in Ireland (story for another day!) and he explained how after after years of being unable to get out of bed he has experienced a renaissance through his public speaking and Gerald online.

Elizabeth Holmes

It’s usually a good quality for a founder to believe in their vision, but there’s a thin line between uncompromising belief and delusion. Elizabeth Holmes built revolutionary blood-testing start-up Theranos to a $9bn valuation, only to see it evaporate after it became apparent that the technology never actually worked.

Her response to such ‘hiccoughs’ was to fake results for corporate customers and investors, in the belief that it was inevitable that the tech would eventually come good. The jury that convicted her of wire fraud didn’t seem to buy this justification.

Vladimir Putin

More of a kleptocrat dictator than a chief exec, but Putin still offers some valuable leadership lessons for how not to build on success. Having secured his control of Russia and outmanoeuvred his international rivals on several occasions over 20 years in the Kremlin, he fell into the trap of overconfidence.

Surrounding himself with yes-men who were terrified to contradict him, he grossly underestimated his Ukrainian opponents, misread the resolve of Western nations and overestimated his own military. The resultant war in Ukraine has been a calamity for all involved.

Tony Hayward

Being CEO of BP is a high-pressure job at the best of times, but Hayward found himself engulfed in crisis when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and began leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In a situation like that, leaders must be seen to do the utmost for all stakeholders, and to hold themselves accountable.

Instead, Hayward initially downplayed the environmental disaster and later remarked that he’d ‘like his life back’. It didn’t play well with local communities, authorities or shareholders for that matter. Within four months he was gone.

Travis Kalanick

Kalanick built Uber into an extraordinary business through his pugnacious style and rigorous adherence to the old adage that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Well, without the asking for forgiveness part: his strategy was to make Uber a fait accompli in regulated markets before regulators could decide what to do with it.

Yet the very qualities that brought him success contained the seeds of his own downfall. When stories broke about Uber’s toxic workplace culture, investors decided that the company had outgrown Kalanick’s leadership, and pushed him aside.

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