Over-confident leaders fly too close to the sun

10th February 2006 at 00:00
As Icarus discovered, any error of judgement can weigh heavily in the balance against glittering achievement. Take Dame Jean Else, for example, honoured for success at Whalley Range high school in Manchester, then suspended by her authority and subjected last autumn to heavy criticism from the Audit Commission for "a significant breakdown in appropriate standards of governance and accountability at the school". That's the very same report which began: "Whalley Range high school represents an educational success story, having been transformed from being a school in significant difficulty 10 years ago to now being a thriving and successful school."

If you're really unlucky, just one moment of indiscretion leaves you with a nickname - Paddy "Pantsdown" Ashdown for example. Or Dennis "Shower Curtain" Kozlowski, chief executive of Tyco International in the States.

When Dennis had his Manhattan apartment refurbished with the firm's cash he threw in a shower curtain billed at $6,000.

There are many examples and it's interesting to pick out the common features, and learn leadership lessons from them.

One is that it's possible to be so successful that you become over-confident about your ability to defy convention and criticism. "How on earth did he think he could get way with it?" we all ask.

Maybe excellent leadership always carries this danger. You won't run a competitive company, or turn round a desperate school if you're the sort of person who keeps stopping to check the small print.

Another common feature is that as you focus on your priorities, you'll inevitably create some disgruntled employees - or, more likely, ex-employees. However tarnished their own motives, if they decide to talk about you, somebody will have to decide whether or not to take notice - and that's something you can't control.

The lessons? I suppose one is always to make sure that although you know the people who put you in place will give you some rope in return for success, you need to be ever-cautious about what that means in practice.

Too many people in difficulty have heard erstwhile supporters say, "Of course, when I said that, I didn't really mean..."

The other one is simply to keep rooted on the ground. There are two ways to do that. One is to have people around who will fearlessly say: "Hang on, Boss, before you do that, let's run it past...." The other is to look at other people doing comparable jobs and say, "Yes, I'm convinced I'm much better than they are, but I'm in the same game. The same rules apply to all of us."

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