The Dramatic Downfall of Former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn Shows 3 Pitfalls All Leaders Should Avoid

January 10, 2019 12:13 pm

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Why would somebody who had achieved so much risk everything by flaunting the rules?

Unfortunately, Ghosn is just the latest case of poor decision-making in the C-suite that has gone unchecked. Another recent example is Elon Musk, an incredible visionary who consolidated power as chairman and CEO of Tesla, then was forced to give up his chairman role after making inappropriate social media posts about taking the company private.

There is a lesson here: Passion and vision are vital to success in business, but they are not everything. There is a reason that barely half of all companies in the S&P 500 Index combine the roles of chair and CEO in one person. Absolute power corrupts.

That’s why, rather than insulating themselves from balancing influences, smart leaders build support systems that minimize their weaknesses and help them avoid falling prey to corrupting influences.

If you aspire to be a top leader in your field, here’s how you can follow that path of success.

Build a team of rivals.

One of the biggest mistakes powerful people can make is to surround themselves with colleagues who create an echo chamber, rather than with people who question ideas and push them to improve. Steve Jobs wanted to be challenged by Apple’s best and brightest; he said that when team members debate, “they polish each other, and they polish the ideas.

Jobs believed that team members needed to get comfortable with conflict to drive each other to do better. And, he was right. Building a culture of productive conflict keeps leaders sharp. The best team will take your strong ideas further and rein you in when you are headed in the wrong direction. If you build a team of enablers who support your every move, you will begin to think you are infallible. In mild cases, that mindset can inhibit growth; in cases like Ghosn’s, it can derail careers and tarnish legacies.

Think candidly about the people around you. Do they feel empowered to challenge you and polish your ideas? Have you done enough to promote productive conflict on your leadership team? The answer to those questions will determine the health of your organization.

Hire people who complement your weaknesses.

The best leaders are self-aware enough to know their own weaknesses and to gravitate toward people who minimize those shortcomings. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and President Frank Wells built a brilliant partnership because they complemented each other perfectly: Eisner was the visionary strategist, and Wells was the practical executor. Together they transformed the entertainment industry.

People are often drawn to those who are similar to them, but it is vital to widen your perspective. Colleagues with different backgrounds and skill sets can remind you of consequences you have not considered and provide viewpoints or ideas that might tip the scales in taking your business from good to great.

Establish clear governance.

Though it is less visible, a company’s governance can be just as important as its culture and vision. Make sure to have a strong legal team and consult with auditors to keep your business compliant with the highest standards. You should be following best practices long before anyone starts watching.

It can be easy to lose sight of governance, especially when pursuing exponential growth. Leaders have a responsibility to set the example. If employees see their supervisors treating governance as a low priority, they will be more prone to misconduct. What you permit is what you promote.

Remember that the consequences for ignoring governance can affect companies on a grand scale. Already, Ghosn’s behavior at Nissan has created tension in the valuable partnership between Nissan and Renault, an issue that could ultimately damage both companies.  

One of the challenges of success is that each accomplishment brings new problems to solve. It is all too common for highly successful people to think that they are infallible, that they are the smartest person in every room, and that the rules do not apply to them. Leaders owe it to themselves and their organizations to erect structures to guard against these pitfalls.

Do not fall prey to the corrupting influence of power. Surround yourself with people who challenge you to improve; hire employees who minimize your weaknesses; and remember the principles that govern your organization and keep your business honest. No matter what leaders achieve, they must continue to set an example for others to follow.

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