The trio of authors bring a diversity of perspective with them. Ben Laker is a professor of leadership and Postgraduate Research Director of Leadership, Organisations and Behaviour at Henley Business School; David Cobb is CEO of Oceanova, a UK business incorporating several leadership education brands, predominantly for the schools sector; Rita Trehan started her career in HR at Honeywell, before becoming Chief People Officer at AGL Energy in Australia. In early 2019 she founded and is now CEO of, Dare, a transformation consultancy. In addition to this book she has written Unleashing Capacity: The Hidden Human Resources (2019) and Stake in the Game (due Dec, 2021).
The world of organisations is littered with failed endeavour, CEOs ending their careers with their prized legacy in tatters and executive trajectories that have never quite lit up the sky in the way they had hoped. The progress of careers is often derailed just when they should be achieving their glittering pinnacle. The old adage that ‘what got you here, wont get you there’ is often the source of this derailment, more particularly it is the misbelief that previous success was all down to their own genius, rather than a complex mix of talent, circumstance and luck, as well as over-looking the fact that many others played a part in making ‘it’ happen. This fake news of one’s own capacity to resolve other’s errors lies at the root of many corporate failures.
This book shines a light on, not so much ‘pride’ which the title mentions though the text rarely does, but on ‘hubris’ – the misplaced self-belief of leaders that sets them up, almost inevitably, for a fall. The lucky ones may have escaped before the edifice crumbles, but for most their hubris will trip them up in full view of all. What the authors do elegantly is show that the route to hubris is very broad and well-paved, it takes a special person to avoid it for the less well-trodden path of humility and collaboration. But that the latter offers a far more sustainable way to success and real value.
The route to hubris a beguiling and the authors depict that in an all too familiar mini case study, which is worth repeating in full here:
In times of crisis, high-risk or a threat from external forces, such as a sudden hostile takeover bid, a company will look to the CEO to step up to the plate and show the hostile bidder who is boss. In such circumstances, there may not be time for the such niceties of consultation and inclusive involvement of all stakeholders. The markets reopen the next morning, and unless a decisive strategy and statement can be put together and issued, market traders will have decided the company's fate before anything else can be done. In those high-pressure, high stakes circumstances, you need a leader who is also prepared to be the boss, exhibit bold, decisive thinking and articulate that in interviews, in a way which displays total confidence and determination. In these situations, only the strong survive, even if a massive game of bluff may be involved.
So, in boss mode, our CEO pulls that one off, saves the day and brushes aside the retrospective concerns of those who were not consulted or involved in the weekend's decisions and briefings. Triumphs like this can be horribly beguiling. Our heroic CEO is enjoying this new status and the adrenalin rush it brings, loving being the focus of media attention, and the precedent of being able to act and succeed in a way that bypasses the standard boardroom approval conventions.
This is power in its purest form, beholden to no one, but the triumph of being the main decision maker. These are the moments when confidence can tip over into overconfidence when being inclusive and consultative feels an unnecessary bore, and a counterproductive slowing down of great decision-making. The external hostile takeover is replaced by a hostile internal takeover – by the CEO. Steering Committees and consultation groups are quietly dismantled, or their next meetings become endlessly postponed. Direct access to the CEO becomes more difficult, except for a tight inner circle. Our hero starts to believe that bold decisions are the way to solve everything, and a series of previously unannounced initiatives, start to emanate from the CEOs office. The way in which this power grab can manifest itself are many and varied; some subtle and gradual, some startling and immediate. Swept along by the recent triumph it's amazing what can get pushed through in the sudden euphoria. Boss mode becomes a permanent state, and true leadership recedes.
They go on to describe five organisational crashes, led boldly by leaders and org cultures that were too tied up with their own brilliance, power, impact and probably share options, to realise the damage they were wreaking until too late. Boeing's 737 Max disaster; Adam Neumann at WeWork; various CEOs culminating in Rick Wagoner at General Motors; Travis Kalanick at Uber; and the concept of 'too big to fail' leading to failure at Deutsche Bank. They also scan their eye, in some detail, over four tech titans: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, none of whom have yet 'fallen off the tightrope' but they identify signs where their single-mindedness could cause structural weaknesses that will lead to corporate downfall later on. In a way it is a bit unfair to cast the eyeglass over these four – they are all outliers, exceptional geniuses that have created megacorps in short order. They are founders too, and founders need a different set of skills than most CEOs. If ever you need self-belief in business it is as an entrepreneur, and the margins for error are much thinner than in megacorps. Bezos has just ousted himself from day-to-day control of Amazon, so appears to be dodging the pitfall of incumbency. There are plenty of appointed CEOs who would perhaps have better fit analysis: Fred Goodwin at RBS, Kenneth Lay at Enron for starters and too many politicians and sports managers to mention.
The second part of the book offers practical ways to avoid the hubris traphe, and the critical chapter in the book is the first one this section. This is where the authors acknowledge the tension between collaboration and urgency. Most of the second part of the book is an exploration of this balancing act. As they note "the central quandary of leadership: lead at all costs or seek consensus?". Ultimately, CEOs need to get the job done and just enabling discussion alone fails to achieve that. In an adaptation of the Tannenbaum-Schmidt continuum, they set out various roles the leader must fulfil to allow both collaboration and timely execution to occur. From disruptor to team-builder to enabler to collaborator to implementer and then looping back to disruptor again (continue being challenged).
The risk is to start to fail to scan the horizons and see and hear feedback from others. The leader who has blinkers on, loses curiosity, and falls into a lazy routine of answering all challenges with their 'tried and tested' solutions is well on that hubristic pathway.
This book is important reading, if only because the central message needs repetition throughout all leaders’ careers. The perils of hubris are ever-present and we all need being reminded of them. It is also entertainingly written, with a dose of wit in much of the prose, Adam Neumann’s approach is cast as ‘not WeWorking’, they note the nominative determinism of Tim Cook’s behind the scenes approach at Apple to Steve Job’s ‘maitre d”, and the Uber-ness of Uber’s brutal approach to competition. All of which is a breath of refreshing air compared with many such books.
They conclude with seven Leadership Reflections that they explore in detail:
While the book is angled and focused largely at the role of CEOs, these messages are largely applicable to all leaders regardless of seniority. If managers at all levels can adopt and practice these behaviours as they clamber their way up the corporate ladder, there will be less they have to change when they reach the top in the way that they lead. If the organisation has developed these approaches widely across all employees and managers, the CEO will then also have a much more effective, knowledgeable, cohesive and involved team to work and collaborate with.
Title: Too Proud to Lead: How hubris can destroy effective leadership and what to do about it
Author/s Name/s: Ben Laker, David Cobb, Rita Trehan
Publisher: Bloomsbury Business
Publishing Date: June, 2019
Number of Pages: 221
Author Knowledge Rating: 1-5 (based on their years of experience, academic expertise in subject areas, and exposure to cross-functional thinking in the area)
Readability: 1-5 score(1=dense and v academic; 5=frantic; page turner)
Appropriate Length: (1=could have been written in 25% of the length;5=could have been longer)
Core Idea Value: (1=nonsense (or entirely esoteric); 5=game-changer)