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Book Review of: Derailed
Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership
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Derailed, by Tim Irwin, PhD (Hardcover, 2009)|
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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 what happened.
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 track.
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 sources.
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.
About these reviews
You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?
I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?
And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.
This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.
My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.
A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.
About your reviewer
About reading style
No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.
Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.