It is almost painful to watch the U.S. presidential primary process right now. But I am in fact watching, and as a consultant, I’ve noticed that both of the current front runners are demonstrating horrible personal traits that can be company killers in senior management, let alone in the CEO’s office. With Donald Trump, who is a CEO, you have to feel sorry for the person who is actually keeping his empire running. He or she is likely the unsung hero of the firm and just as likely trading a high salary for constantly being blamed for mistakes they didn’t make and watching their boss take credit for their successes. Whoever you are, I’m raising my glass in a toast to your unsung accomplishments. But Trump’s issues are obvious and can be corrected. I think Hillary Clinton’s, in many ways, are scarier because they are more endemic and virtually impossible to correct after the fact.
Let’s look presidential candidates and horrid management practices this week.
Inability to See/Accept Personal Mistakes
The inability to see or accept personal mistakes has two sides; one is annoying and the other is deadly in a chief executive. The annoying part is taking credit for everything that goes right, regardless of whether the person in question personally did it. That isn’t a company killer but it fosters disloyalty in staff. If you work for someone like this, it can be incredibly aggravating. For example, I think this was one of the core reasons that when current presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was HP CEO, the firm’s CMO, Alisson Johnson, went to the HP board and backstabbed her boss, directly leading to the board’s decision to fire Fiorina. When Johnson left to join Apple, she effectively took Fiorina out on her way out the door.
But the bigger issue is the inability to admit and take responsibility for a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes but if you can’t admit to it, you won’t change your behavior and you’ll make the same mistake over and over again. We see that constantly with Trump. It was clear to the rest of us that making personal attacks on a female reporter was a bad idea, yet Trump just did the same thing in his attack on Fiorina. Continuing to attack women on a personal level that he disagrees with will likely lead to him losing a huge chunk of potential voters for no real reason other than that he can’t admit he can be wrong. Executives with this behavior spend an incredible amount of effort passing blame, correcting or covering up mistakes they make repeatedly, which not only lowers significantly their effectiveness but destroys the respect that others have for them and makes them look stupid. Trump has been particularly good at overcoming his mistakes but seems completely unable to acknowledge or avoid repeating them.
Here’s a contrasting example from Bill Gates, former Microsoft CEO and one of the smartest guys in the world. I was recently going over his deposition in the Microsoft anti-trust case. He sucked. He didn’t cover it up, though. He recognized he’d screwed up and actually changed his life. That’s what really smart people do. It isn’t that they don’t make mistakes. They work to make sure they don’t make the same mistake twice.
When Trump loses, he’ll have no one to blame but himself. But I’ll lay odds that he blames everyone but himself, which will assure that he’ll never improve and that is a losing strategy.
As bad as Trump’s behavior is, Clinton’s is worse because it is harder to see. But that just makes it far more dangerous.
I first ran into this issue at IBM and it actually scared the hell out of me. I was trying to make a difference and clearly struggling. My first big project, to spin out the IBM Software Division as a company, had failed. I was very frustrated. One of the executives I reported to took me into his office to mentor me and he said my problem was that I was committing to do things. His strategy, which had proven very successful at IBM, was to never commit to anything. That way, if something went wrong, no one could blame him for it. Effectively, the idea was to look busy but not to actually try to do anything. This was frightening because I suddenly realized why we were having so many issues getting things done. A bunch of folks were aggressively doing their best to not actually get anything done for fear it would go badly and they’d be blamed. What I found particularly annoying was that a huge chunk of them felt a good extra hedge was to make sure that the folks who did want to get things done were blocked because they’d make them look bad.
This appears to be the strategy Clinton has been employing. It just became obvious as folks tried to list her accomplishments and found an amazingly short list, headed by the number of miles she flew while Secretary of State (to which Fiorina had a funny and appropriate response). It may explain Benghazi, as well, if she was avoiding taking action to avoid the blame if it went badly. Even the email server problem she has was likely the result of an effort to make sure she couldn’t be blamed for anything in the correspondence. There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that she is now being blamed for what may be the largest breach of State Department security on record.
The lesson here is that a strategy of inaction to avoid blame for a wrong decision is incredibly dangerous for the company and the career aspirations of the individual following it. Not doing something that needed doing, or worse, keeping others from accomplishing what needs doing in order not to look bad by comparison is one of the worst business practices I know of.
Wrapping Up: The Worst Traits for Leaders
Of the two behaviors, avoiding responsibility and the inability to accept personal mistakes, Clinton’s is worse for two reasons.
First, it is harder to detect, which means it is vastly harder to correct or mitigate and, when you do correct it, you can’t fix a history of not doing anything, which is now Clinton’s problem. Trump could change his behavior tomorrow and likely change his fortunes, at least somewhat. Clinton can’t go back in time and do all of the things she avoided doing. I doubt either candidate will win but the odds actually favor Trump because he could correct his mistakes (I sincerely doubt he will, though). Clinton is locked in, which should make it too late for her.
However this turns out, remember these two behaviors. They should never be emulated and, if you have a choice, never work for anyone or have anyone work for you that exhibits either of them. If you can mentor an employee out of these mistakes or talk to your kids so they avoid adopting or working for anyone who has them, you’ll be doing a huge service to the world and all of us who have had to suffer under managers or executives like this.
Take two things away from this:
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+