Derailment: A Cautionary Tale

The first course in the Adult Degree Completion program that I am taking at Trinity Western University explores leadership as a learning process. Bill George’s book, True North, starts by describing the journey to authentic leadership, but before delving too deeply into the why and how, warns us about the risks that come with a leadership role.

We can learn from our own mistakes, but it would be far better not to repeat the same mistakes others have made, but to learn from the mistakes of others.

Chapter 2: Why Leaders Lose Their Way

Two cautionary tales are offered to illustrate two different ways to fail. To a great extent, it is impossible to avoid failure. Often, it is how we respond to failure that determines the outcome. The chapter takes us through these two narratives using the following outline:

  • What causes leaders to lose their way?
    • Losing touch with reality
    • Fearing failure
    • Craving success
    • Turning failures into successes
    • The loneliness within
  • Derailment: losing sight of your true north
    • Imposters
    • Rationalizers
    • Glory seekers
    • Loners
    • Shooting stars
    • Heroes of their own journeys

The tale of Philip Purcell, the former CEO of Morgan Stanley, illustrates the reaction of the glory seeker, who, upon finding himself in the top position, spent his time securing his power by eliminating any challenges to his leadership. This ultimately leads to his forced resignation. (p. 28)

The chapter ends with the story of Kevin Sharer, who had been a rising star at GE. But he was so enamoured with his own success that he figured he would be a shoe-in for the CEO position at MCI, so he resigned at GE and attempted to take a shortcut to the top at MCI. Instead, his inexperience in the telecommunications industry was all too evident when he proposed a restructuring of the MCI sales organization, and his credibility plummeted. Patience, humility and an eagerness to learn were the lessons he was able to take with him into his role at Amgen, where, in time, he earned his position as CEO.


Learning from failure:

When you’re successful, you take it for granted and move on to the next thing. Failure forces you to reflect. What went wrong? How could I have done this better? It’s an opportunity for you to take responsibility. The path of least resistance is to blame it on someone else. I failed many times but learned from each experience and usually managed to come back stronger. I kept plugging away and eventually was successful.
— David Pottruck, former CEO of Charles Schwab (p. 31)

The role of a leader:

The role of leaders is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead. (p. 36)

Do what you love, and you’ll do it with passion:

It is vitally important that you love what you do because if you don’t, you won’t do your best.
— Kevin Sharer, CEO, Amgen (p. 41)