Monday, December 26, 2011

How the Mighty Fall

Writing about failure and falling down is an odd topic to discuss during the holiday season. This is after all the season of fun, frolic and cheer - a moment when we rather not talk of failure. And even if we have to, we would rather frame failure in contrast to success where success is defined as the overcoming of failure and the capability of bouncing back from our fall.....

But would it really help to understudy failure given that everyone among us is bound to fall at some time or the other? To help us better, what if there is a method or structure to failure that we can learn from? Put it differently, when everything around you is seemingly looking fantastic, are there warning signs that you can identify in advance so that your fall can be managed better?

Readers of my blog know that I like to read books. It was fiction once upon a time and management now. But my underpinnings to reading have remained the same all through viz. what does the book teach and are its teachings relevant to a common man's life? The true measure of greatness of any book- according to me - lies in its ability to present a view that is universally and eternally applicable regardless of its genre. After all, not everyone gets to be 'strategic' or 'global leadership material', but each one of us is - and will remain - a leader in our own way in our lives. And lessons derived from a book on management must have as much applicability to the family world as it would be to the corporate life.

For meeting all these criteria, I rate my latest read How the Mighty Fall as one of the best (that incidentally can also be finished in just two days). 

The book was driven by a simple question posed by a CEO to Jim Collins, its author, on 'how would you know?' whether an organization is on a path to decline or on a path to greatness, when externally, everything looks hunky dory. Thus began his journey to understand the dynamics of failure. (If you are reading this book from the viewpoint of personal growth, the relevant question would be 'how would you know that the seeds of your decline have not yet been sowed when externally you seem to be doing just great?'.) 

You learn that every entity goes through five stages of decline. Each stage has distinct characteristics and clear warning signs. The five stages are:
1. Hubris (excessive pride) born out of past success
2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
3. Denial of risk and peril
4. Grasping for salvation
5. Capitulation to death

In fact, the first three happen when the external world thinks there is nothing wrong with you. But the internal signs are there for all to see, and companies that ignore these internal warning signs do so at their own peril. The examples that Jim Collins shows us as he walks us through the five stages are profound. So are classic vignettes such as "while no single leader can build an enduringly great company, the wrong leader vested with power can almost single-handedly bring the company down' or 'when institutions fail to distinguish between current practices and the enduring principles of their success, and mistakenly fossilize around their practices, they've set themselves up for decline'.

The redeeming conclusion is that the stages of decline are truly reversible - provided you are not in the terminal phases within Stage 5. What you need is an ability to go back to basics by identifying your core purpose and values, adding a healthy dose of humility and diligence, and an unyielding drive to never ever give up. That your path to failure may be dark, but when you understand the five stages, there is light for you to bounce back. 

If you want my advice, read Good to Great first before How the Mighty Fall. Not only does the former teach you to turn great, but also acts as a firm reference point as you navigate the latter. And once you are done, maybe you can read his latest Great by Choice next.

Happy Holidays everyone and wishing you a marvelous 2012.

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