I had been a university professor for 10 years by the time I met Alan Elkins. Alan was very different from most of my MBA students. He was a psychiatrist and knew how to ask better questions than I did. He was also 68 years old. Most students are in their twenties.
At the time I was in the midst of an intensive research project on CEO failure and had compiled dozens of case studies about leaders who failed at a company, such as Stephen Wiggins of Oxford Health Systems, George Fisher and Gary Tooker at Motorola, and William Smithburg of Quaker/Snapple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alan was interested in the project, and encouraged me to interview these leaders, and others, to find out what really caused these leaders and companies to go astray in such a spectacular fashion.
I couldn't imagine why these CEOs - high-profile and already pilloried for their incompetence - would ever consider going on record discussing how they had screwed up. But Alan was persuasive, and offered to help in organising and conducting the interviews.
Oh, the humanity
It turns out, if you want to really understand why companies do what they do, you have to pay attention to the leaders running those companies, and recognise that they are human too. It's not an accident that the great strategy treatises of history, from Sun Tzu's The Art of War to Shakespeare's Richard III, take readers into the mind of the leader - their frailties as much as their power.
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