The Slippery Slope To A Downfall
A few years ago, Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric (GE), wrote a book called Winning, which describes how winners behave and think, leading to great success in their careers and lives. The latest book from Bill Lane, Welch’s speechwriter and communications director for many years, is the flip side of Winning. In Losing It: Behaviors and Mindsets that Ruin Careers, Lane describes the attitudes and actions of losers in the workplace. Drawing on his experience not just at GE, but also as a former Green Beret and speechwriter at the Pentagon, Lane offers a fair yet uncompromising review of the kinds of decisions and the kinds of people who can cause serious harm to themselves and those around them.
Not all people who do bad or stupid things are bad or stupid people, Lane writes. Sometimes, for example, good people can suddenly find themselves on the slippery slope to unethical behavior. The trick, he writes, is to stay away from what he calls "Calhoun's line," which refers to Dave Calhoun, former vice chairman of GE. Calhoun told Lane that if you start to compromise on integrity, the moral line in the sand gets closer and closer until, one day, you are bound to step over it.
Throughout the book, Lane is not afraid to place himself front and center as an example of how easy it is to make the wrong decisions. Lane’s honesty, however, is especially apparent in the chapter on integrity, in which he describes how, as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War, Calhoun’s line came closer and closer to him.
At first, Lane, whose responsibilities included paying South Vietnamese fighters, bent the rules for noble purposes: He engaged in some creative accounting to be able to give some severely wounded South Vietnamese heroes more money than authorized. "But Calhoun's 'line in the sand' was moving toward me. I had other 'expenses,'" Lane writes, including paying for "creature comforts" for the Americans' living quarters. One day, however, he refused to take part in the torture of a captured civilian — a bizarre-acting, odd-looking Vietnamese man who would later turn out to be a village idiot who had obliviously wandered into the fighting area. On that day, Lane writes, "I approached Calhoun's line and ran from it like a rabbit."
Lane explores a number of ways that good and not-so-good people ruin their careers, including arrogance and the inability to see reality. One of the ways to ensure that your career stays on track is to practice "selective micromanagement." Hands-off management, Lane writes, is what sunk the Titanic. Captain Edward John Smith would have known how to navigate through the ice field had he been at the helm, but he wasn’t there. As Lane writes, "He was having his ass kissed by his adoring passengers at his dinner party." The captain then put on his pajamas and retired to his luxury suite while the Titanic steamed ahead to meet its tragic fate. "What an egomaniacal, irresponsible, 'hands-off' manager!" Lane concludes.
The best managers plunge into details far below their pay grade to ensure that they know what is truly going on. Welch, whom Lane portrays as a fearsome yet brilliant and engaging leader, was never afraid to delve into the details. "Micromanaging — or at least micro-understanding the workings of a business at every level — is, in my view, a characteristic of a winner," Lane writes.
Lane’s exit from GE provides one of the more interesting anecdotes for executives. He uses the term "retired," but gives readers every indication that his position was slowly being eliminated as Welch neared the end of his reign. Lane also reveals that he irked Welch with his first book ("He didn’t speak to me for two years," Lane writes). Despite this impasse, readers will not be surprised to learn that Welch invited him to be a member of the Executive MBA Faculty at the Jack Welch Management Institute.
Lane’s advice is brutal in its honesty, but those readers tough enough to bear it will benefit. Lane draws on multiple conversations with many high-level "winners," but also includes personal experiences and observations of those who lose it. As Lane writes: "This book isn’t about me. But I’m not writing about behaviors I got off the Internet." For anyone who doesn’t want to lose it, start with this book.