Ernest Hemingway, Hubris and Corporate Decline


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

collins-mighty-fallMost 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

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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