Leadership: With Great Power Comes Great . . .Opportunity to Screw Up!

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On January 15, 2017

Leadership-With-Great-Responsibility-Comes-Great. . .Opportunity-to-Screw-Up!You’ve probably heard people say that it’s lonely at the top. There’s no doubt that business leadership can mean great power—and carry with it the lonely task of great responsibility. And that responsibility can also bring the capability of making great mistakes. When that happens, it’s even lonlier at the top—and everyone seems to be watching.

At the end of last year, Forbes published a list of “The Worst CEO Screw-ups of 2016”. You can click on the link for their in-depth description of these professiona faux pas, but here’s a summary of a few of the better-known ones.

  • Roger Ailes (Fox News) The scandal started on July 6 when, two weeks after leaving Fox News, former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against the CEO, saying he sabotaged her career after she declined his sexual advances.
  • Heather Bresch (Mylan) Mylan drew the wrath of the country in 2016. The pharmaceutical company’s EpiPen product, an injected medicine for people with life-threatening allergies, was priced at $124 in 2009. By May 2016 EpiPen cost nearly $609, leaving parents who needed it for their children in a tight financial spot.
  • Parker Conrad (Benefits) Zenefits is a Silicon Valley startup that moved fast, pursued growth at all costs and then crashed. This past February, a BuzzFeed article reported that Zenefits was employing insurance salespeople who didn’t have legitimate state licenses.
  • Matt Harrigan (PacketSled) We don’t often hear about CEOs threatening to kill a future president, but that’s exactly what happened at PacketSled, a San Diego-based, 25-person cybersecurity startup. After the election, an intoxicated Matt Harrigan said on Facebook that he was going to kill Donald Trump.
  • Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) Elizabeth Holmes’ biggest screw-ups came before 2016, when Theranos didn’t disclose (paywall) that it was processing many blood tests with other companies’ more traditional machines instead of its own technology. Holmes made the list again this year because of the way she has managed the crisis.
  • Darren Huston (Priceline) A tip from a whistleblower led Priceline’s board to open up an investigation into CEO Darren Huston. It accused Huston of having an extramarital affair with a female Priceline staffer.
  • Renaud Laplanche (Lending Club) Online lending platform Lending Club was once a bright spot in the fintech industry. But its CEO’s problems cast a shadow on the company this year. In the spring Lending Club’s board discovered that Laplanche had a personal investment in Cirrix Capital, but he failed to disclose it before he urged Lending Club to invest $10 million in the company.
  • Mike Pearson (Valiant) Mike Pearson went from a billionaire and Wall Street darling to a disgraced chief executive. The trouble began in August 2015, when Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Elijah Cummings questioned why Valeant had steeply raised the prices of heart drugs. More controversy ensued when Valeant disclosed an unusually cozy relationship with Philidor, the mail-order pharmacy that bought many Valeant products.
  • John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) Wells Fargo’s big woes this year were based on events occurring prior to 2016, but CEO Stumpf’s heads-down approach to managing the crisis appeared to make matters worse. The scandal arose in September, when Wells Fargo announced it would pay $185 million to regulators because its employees had been opening new accounts for customers without their knowledge to meet quotas.

Do you see common threads in these “great screw-ups”?

What was your biggest screw-up of 2016 (or before that)?

What did you learn from it?

What steps did you take (or are you taking) to avoid it in the future?