Derailed, by Tim Irwin, PhD (Hardcover, 2009)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This book consists of five parts (not labeled as such).
In the second part, Dr. Irwin takes "How to Play with Others 101" and
applies that to an analysis of how half a dozen grossly overpaid CEOs
managed to tank the very companies that grossly overpaid them.
What he doesn't say is you get what you pay for. When a
Board pays such outrageous amounts to "attract" a CEO, it is going to
attract people who are delusional enough to think they are actually
worth that kind of money. The results is predictable: a person of
outsized ego takes outsized risks. Unfortunately, these people tend to
be "fired" with grossly lavish "severance" packages so they "win the
lottery" even if they fail in a colossal way.
Dr. Irwin concludes that, in each case, these failures were due to a
lack of character in the CEOs who failed. What he doesn't point out is
the Boards that hired them and arranged for their absurd levels of pay
and severance were asking for exactly what happened. The Board members
lack character, intelligence, or both. Creating a situation in which one
person can roll the dice for your company and get millions of dollars no
matter how the dice come up isn't exactly brilliant.
I'm not sure that the profiles hold direct lessons for all of us
(though the book itself is instructive and helpful). Most of us have
paid the price for hubris in the workplace, whether our own or someone
else's. We've been fired or laid off without the wealth accumulated from
a multimillion dollar salary, a multimillion dollar signing bonus, and a
multimillion dollar severance package. We don't get multimillion dollar
book deals and $10,000 speaking engagements where we can vent at others
about our own failures and get paid obscenely to rewrite the history of
That said, the underlying lesson that you must respect others and
listen to the people you work with are things we can always benefit from
being reminded of. This book helps serve as such a reminder. The bulk of
it addresses these key points.
Dr. Irwin repeatedly affirms the fact that technical competence alone
is not what you need to succeed. Poor character, being too full of
yourself, being emotionally tone deaf, and other self-inflicted defects
will always set the stage for colossal failure.
I like the fact he didn't go about engaging in character
assassination of any of the people profiled. At the same time, there
wasn't all that much profiling done. We weren't taken through the events
to determine what went wrong. We just have to take Dr. Irwin's word for
it that what went wrong was a failure of character. He does substantiate
this somewhat, but not in a convincing manner. He leaves many questions
unanswered and leaves open the door to several other explanations.
But that may be OK. These profiles were, I think, just meant to be
illustrative cases rather than exhaustive analyses. They form one part
(about a fourth) of a five-part book.
The first part is an explanation of what he means by derailment. In
the third part, Dr. Irwin describes the process of derailment. It's
usually no single thing, but a series of missteps. In the derailments
profiled, there were many opportunities along the way to prevent the
damage from occurring. The Boards didn't take the opportunities, the
direct reports failed to "manage up," and the CEOs being profiled just
continued through the barricades to head over the cliff.
It sounds to me like all of these people were simply too comfortable
with what was going on. That happens when your pay is 40 times what a
mere mortal makes and you will still make that pay even if the CEO
crashes and burns. The solution isn't to demand high-character CEOs, but
to ensure that if the CEO or the company fails, the whole team fails.
There's a reason military special forces use that policy in their
training. Everybody drop and do pushups!
In the fourth part, which takes up about a fourth of the book, Dr.
Irwin talks about how you can avoid your own derailment. He concludes
this part by discussing his heroic father, and it's a good story to
reflect upon while thinking over your own choices as situations present
themselves. The fifth part is just shy of being a fourth of the book.
Dr. Irwin reviews five lessons learned and explains how to stay on
He's got about a dozen pages of bibliography notes for a book that's
less than 200 pages, so he obviously did his research and isn't just
spewing opinion. Most of the sources are credible and authoritative,
though he does include the New York Times and some other disinformation
What irritates me most about this book is the author's poor word
choices. They exist throughout the text. Actually, we get hit with one
before even opening the book. The subtitle isn't correct. A
"catastrophic" failure is one from which you can't recover. The examples
the author uses are of companies that did recover and of individuals who
presumably will recover or already have done so.
Another word choice problem that had me often wanting to grab a
bottle of correction fluid was the author's misuse of "impact." In most,
perhaps all, instances, he used the word to mean something other than
what it means. This kind of pidgin English drives me batty. A reader
should not have to guess what the author means. The author should say
what he means.
Overall, not a bad book. It makes a nice addition to anyone's career
or business library.