Magic Mirror on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest One of All?

No fundamental is more critical for sustained business success than Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” yet too many businesses fall victim to fairy tale logic than the wisdom of one of Western philosophy’s founding thinkers. Thanks to USA Today,  here’s another timely reminder of this most essential fundamental.

Each of these 8 founders, as well as all those who preceded them as achievers-turned-destroyers and all who will follow in this unfortunate tradition, share one common trait: their sum is so significant it not only overshadows the whole, they likely prevented any corporate whole from ever fully forming. If there’s any surprise to this list it’s that only 25% founded companies known by their name (Martha Stewart and Michael Dell), the correlation between corporate founders-turned-slayers naming companies after themselves tends to be remarkably high.

Just as there is no denying each of these founders achieved notable success, it is also true that the evil queen in “Snow White” was once known as the most beautiful person in her empire; getting to the top is an admirable personal accomplishment, but building on it is the exclusive province of sustained corporate greatness. It took an honest mirror to tell the queen that her beauty was fleeting, something we don’t see reflected in corporate governance for any of the companies that allow founder ego to dictate strategy and policy. In some instances founders purposefully surround themselves with sycophants, who would never have that magic mirror’s courage, and in other circumstances we see a revolving door of board members and managers who dared to challenge the founder’s intellectual beauty and are executed for the insult.

I understand media loves a good story, which is undoubtedly why each of the eight founders profiled in this USA Today article were also subjects of many fawning CEO as Hero stories over the years. My years of experience revitalizing underperforming companies leads me to a conclusion that these third-party rooting sections make it even more impossible for conscientious stakeholders to speak truth to power, assuring a rise in sycophantic behaviors that ultimately accelerate corporate rot. Just a no one great person ever really builds anything of consequence alone, it is equally unfair to lay the blame for these eight underperforming companies solely on their founders–they have all had entourages of enablers. Indeed, the successful business transformations I’ve participated in over the years have had more to do with getting the most out of inherent yet untapped company strengths and talent than the work of any individual.

In direct contrast, leaders who do not look to their magic mirrors of employees, board members and trusted advisers for validation, but challenge them to identify and actively verbalize flaws and competitive threats, tend to run consistently high performing businesses. Their emphasis is on sustained prosperity and profitability rather than glory and it shows in the results.

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