All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know. ~Ernest Hemingway
I am a great fan of Ernest Hemingway. I am transfixed by his economic yet moving prose and drawn in by his stories of humanity facing challenging and sometimes horrific situations. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I was fortunate enough to spend a week with his son, Jack Hemingway, at a salmon fishing lodge in Iceland. I even wrote a short blog about the experience: Flyfishing with Jack Hemingway.
But today’s blog posting is not about flyfishing, but about Leadership and Corporate Culture.
As an example of his economic prose, it was said that in a bar one evening he was challenged to write a story using only 6 words. He took out his pen and grabbed a napkin:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
These six words tell an entire story and the reader is instantly drawn in to learn more. There is obviously a compelling set of events hidden behind these few words.
Leadership and Corporate Culture
Most business books and academics focus on the success stories. Start ups quickly mushrooming into giant distrupters. Older companies transforming themselves to remake an industry. Charismatic leaders who share their secrets for success. Few, however, focus on the failures. And to me, there is much to be learned from an understanding of why firms fail. While lack of capital and excessive bureaucracy are two of the most obvious reasons for failure, looking deeper I have found that leadership, or better yet, lack of leadership, is always at the core of most business failures. One of the few books dealing with failures was written by Jim Collins; How the Mighty Fall. Collins gives many examples of successful companies that have gone from great to failure, either being bought cheap or gone into liquidation. And leadership is at the center of every decline.
Here is my attempt at an economical Hemingway-like business story in 6 words:
Bankruptcy sale: great products, leadership required.
If it is true that organizations are shadows of their leaders and that leaders set the tone for how things are done, then it is imperative that leaders avoid falling into the hubris of “greatness” that can so easily come with success.
Hemingway was often hear saying things like: “Don’t get mesmerised by success, it blinds you to the reality of yourself and things around you.” He was mostly talking about his success as a writer and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and his growing status as an American iconic personality. Hemingway was often so mobbed by people wanting autographs that he retreated from the limelight as much as possible.
In his study of business decline, Jim Collins came up with a 5-stage process leading from success to failure. And Stage 1 begins with “hubris” based on past success. Hubris is a Greek word denoting “excessive pride or self-confidence”. And in business, this self-confidence comes from past success and can easily blind CEOs and leadership teams into missing critical clues that performance is about to decline.
A key question I often ask CEOs and audiences during my keynote speeches is:
“How would you know if your current success is covering up the fact that you’re already on the path of decline?”
Have you and your leadership team ever asked yourself such a question? Why not? How would you know?
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self. ~Ernest Hemingway
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!