Post by: Travis bradberry | Forbes | Published on: 09/27/2016


Most businesses are run by highly intelligent people. Yet, when things fall apart it’s usually due to these highly intelligent leaders’ stupid mistakes. Tragedies happen when smart leaders, who are otherwise great, sabotage themselves, day after day, with mistakes that they can’t see but are obvious to everyone else.

How can smart, experienced people with impressive track records make such stupid mistakes?

Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, spent six years searching for an answer. He and his colleagues studied 51 of the business world’s most notorious failures, interviewing CEOs and people from all levels. He and his team found that the poor decisions these smart leaders made were sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental, but they always followed a clear pattern of hubris that ensured even the most successful enterprise could be run into the ground.

Here’s what the leaders in Finkelstein’s study had in common:

1. They thought they were the smartest person in the room.

Many intelligent leaders know quite well how smart they are. Their identities become so wrapped up in their intelligence that they believe input from others is unnecessary. They make decisions quickly and refuse to answer questions when there’s a misunderstanding. Although this may fit the TV image of a strong leader, making split-second decisions with imprudence often leads to major mistakes. Your chance of failure is heightened when you don’t care to know what other people think.

2. They surrounded themselves with yes-men and women.

Some leaders become so obsessed with loyalty that they expect mindless support for every decision they make. This alienates valuable employees and silences voices that could otherwise help the business succeed. When a leader begins to equate disagreement with disloyalty, or worse—the undermining of their authority—there’s no one left to raise the warning flags.

3. They viewed themselves, and their companies, as untouchable.

There’s nothing wrong with having lofty goals or a healthy sense of pride, but these leaders took their success for granted. They became so enamored with their ideas that they believed their competitors would never catch up, their circumstances would never change, and no disruptors would ever surface. These unrealistic expectations made failure inevitable. Leaders must continually question their positions, especially when they’re on top.

4. They couldn’t tell where they stopped and the company began.

The leaders in Finkelstein’s study had high profiles and were obsessed with company image. As a result, they were too busy being the face of the company to effectively lead it. Not only did this lead to stagnation but it also engendered dishonesty and corruption. A leader who sees a company as his own is more likely to hide anything that could tarnish that image, whether it be low numbers or faulty products.

5. They drove past red flags and warning signs.

Some leaders are so enamored with their personal visions that they’re willing to drive the company off of a cliff in pursuit of them. Many of these leaders solicit input and suggestions, but they just can’t take their feet off the gas. Persistence is a great quality in a leader but not if it means ignoring the facts.

Bringing It All Together

The bad news is that these mistakes are as common as they are damaging. The good news is that they’re really easy to fix, once you’re aware of them.


Have you seen smart leaders make similar mistakes? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!



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