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14 Leadership Lessons To Be Gleaned From Infamous CEOs’ Missteps

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 2, 2021

There’s no shortage of articles highlighting advice and insights from great leaders. However, it is sometimes just as valuable to understand what happens when a leader stumbles. From personal failings to bad company culture, a number of CEOs have become infamous in the press for their highly publicized mistakes.

By analyzing their errors, leaders can better understand how to avoid similar issues—or at least manage them appropriately if they arise. Below, members of Forbes Coaches Council share 14 leadership lessons to be learned from infamous CEOs’ missteps.

1. Know That A CEO’s Actions Affect The Entire Company

The results of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s misconduct is a key example of a business’s brand decline that has nothing to do with its product or services and everything to do with bad behavior by its executives. Kalanick’s behavior created a toxic systemic culture of sexual harassment at Uber. Those mistakes led to Kalanick’s resignation in 2017. When a CEO misbehaves, the company suffers. – Alexandra Salamis, Integral Leadership Design

2. Develop Self-Awareness And Self-Management Strategies

Develop self-awareness and self-management strategies so that you can navigate the polarities leaders often suffer between. In other words, the range of self-talk that falls between “I’m the best” and “perhaps I don’t add any value.” Leadership has evolved significantly, and self-awareness coupled with metacognition are core competencies that will keep you out of the press and adding value daily. – Kirsten Garbini, Dineo Pact (Pty) Ltd

3. Take Ownership Of Your Mistakes

Too often, leaders will attempt to explain, rationalize or flat-out skirt around an issue, thinking they will displace blame from themselves. This only decreases trust and accountability. Taking “radical ownership” of your mistakes results in more trust, as the audience moves on more quickly to other matters. – Henryk Krajewski, Worxera, Inc.

4. Develop Leaders Throughout The Organization

Difficult CEOs spread negative energy, usually falling short of goals and creating a survival culture among the leadership team. Your people are the fuel. A great CEO does not score the touchdowns; their people are the stars. Invest time aligning people to purpose. Develop leaders throughout the entire organization. This becomes a competitive advantage, especially in challenging times. – Steve Wakeen, Playbook Coaching, LLC

5. Stay Grounded In Reality

Our culture’s obsession with quirky, power-hungry, sometimes narcissistic and egomaniacal CEOs is toxic, full stop. Instead, look at what the world’s richest (and perhaps most disconnected from reality) CEOs are doing, and consider doing the opposite: How do you stay grounded in reality, where many people are suffering, and do the most good from the bottom up? – Dave Ursillo, Lead Without Followers, LLC.


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6. Lead With Empathy

We’ve seen CEOs make a lot of tone-deaf statements about unemployment benefits making it hard to hire, rather than considering how challenging it is to try and live off of $15 an hour. For public companies, CEO salaries and bonus packages are not private information. Learning how to lead with empathy can make a CEO relatable and improve the employer brand. – Jessica Miller-Merrell, Workology

7. Give Everyone A Voice And Listen

Critical, negative positions gain momentum and press! When CEOs are strongly opinionated and resistant to others’ ideas, it only leads to people taking sides and justifying their responses. Resistance breeds even more resistance. CEOs who truly listen to others create environments where others desire to reciprocate, collaborate and listen too. Cultures in which people feel they have a voice will thrive. – Cheri Rainey, Rainey Leadership Learning

8. Behave As If The Spotlight Is Always On You

There is no time like this present moment to think about the long term. CEOs tend to think that it is easy to get away with something because their title protects them from all harm. There is no bigger target brightly lit by a spotlight than a CEO. The face of the organization has no curtain behind which to hide from the evaluations of their actions. Behave as if the spotlight is always on you—because it is. – Lee Meadows, Meadows Consulting

9. Allow Dissenting Opinions To Be Heard

You didn’t do it alone and will not be able to do it alone. Give voices of dissent a safe space and do not be suppressive or dismissive of those who have opinions that are different from yours. They will keep you grounded and teach you not to take things personally. If you are only listening to plaudits, you are not in the right role. – Devika Das, CORE Executive Presence

10. You Set The Standard For How Power Is Used And Abused

Being CEO puts one in a position of power. As CEOs are de facto role models, how this power is used impacts the behavior of those inside the company. Is power used to help to influence or to coerce? Does who you know decide what gets done and accepted? Is this power used to promote honesty and integrity? All of these are examples of behaviors that set the standard for how power will be used and abused. – Elizabeth Semion, Elizabeth Semion & Associates

11. Choose Your Words Wisely

Watch what you say, even when you think you are off the record. Your words have more power than you know, and they can undo much good you create. As Warren Buffett wisely warned, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Or, you could just always behave as if your mom is watching. – Sharon Richmond, Richmond Associates Consulting

12. Treat Employees As Human Beings

Most infamous CEOs have one thing in common: They refuse to treat the people who work for them as actual human beings. They tend to concern themselves with what they can get from those people instead of finding ways to help them grow, which in turn would grow their business. Make sure your people know how much they matter and feel appreciated. – Jon Dwoskin, The Jon Dwoskin Experience

13. Always Be Ethical

Be ethical in everything you do. There are many examples of CEOs who are at both ends of the ethical spectrum. If company leaders consider both positive and negative examples, they can see the choices they make and the results of those choices as they play out in the press. Maintaining high ethical standards requires development, reflection, open discussions and attention to cultural shifts. – Susan Madsen, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

14. Don’t Try To Keep Secrets

Every CEO needs to look at the ongoing parade of leadership PR disasters and realize that there are no secrets. A secret today will be a career-killer tomorrow. CEOs need to understand that every action they take is under a harsh, ongoing spotlight of intense scrutiny. So every CEO needs to live by a simple daily mantra: Do the right thing, every time—no exceptions. – Paul Glover, Paul Glover Coaching

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