讨厌的自大 / That Pesky Hubris

讨厌的自大

最近我一直在重温吉姆•柯林斯的著作,他是我最喜欢的管理学作家之一,曾著有畅销书《从优秀到卓越》,还和杰里•波勒斯合作出版过《基业常青》。

柯林斯的写作风格直截了当,引人入胜,不夹杂艰深晦涩的专业术语或者某些管理大师爱用的缩略词,读起来浅显易懂。他为人幽默风趣,还有一种本事,能把管理学习和各种与商业无关的现实生活情景联系起来。他的著作和文章都以研究和数据为先导,但又绝不枯燥乏味,也不简单地堆砌数据。虽然他研究和分析的对象多以《财富》500强企业为主,但他力求能够揭示出跨越国别和文化、放之四海皆准的管理理念,这也是他的作品能够被译成多种语言并在世界各地畅销不衰的原因。

目前,柯林斯正忙于创作他的下一部巨著,和长期搭档莫尔滕•汉森一起撰写一本有关如何度过眼下“动荡”的环境、或是如何在周遭世界失控的状态下实施管理的书籍。

在潜心创作这部鸿篇巨著的同时,柯林斯还忙里偷闲出版了一本篇幅较短的好书,名为《巨人如何倒下》。在该书的自序中,柯林斯说他是在2008年9月25日完成的序文(序文一般是读者首先会阅读的内容,但却是作者最后才会撰写的部分),而那时正是全球经济即将分崩离析、陷入自大萧条以来最严重的金融危机的前夜。柯林斯强调说,该书的问世与危机的出现在时间上纯属巧合。

《巨人如何倒下》一书对成功企业有时会失误甚至失败的根源进行了挖掘,也对某些企业能够力挽狂澜、再创辉煌的原因进行了探究。柯林斯表示,他曾应邀出席一次在美国著名的西点军校举办的非同寻常的聚会,并在会上发表演讲。活动中,有位企业CEO向他提出了一个非常有意思的问题,而就是这个问题让他有了创作这本书的动念。这次聚会虽然规模不大但却精英荟萃,其中囊括了12位美国将军、12位CEO,还有12位来自社会各界的领军人物。聚会的目的是要探讨美国的未来。

就在大家热烈讨论美国即将迎来衰退还是复兴的时候,一位CEO问柯林斯怎么才能知道自己的公司是在走下坡路或是已经露出了颓势。这引发了柯林斯的思考,并最终指引他进行了专项研究并写就《巨人如何倒下》一书。

书的开篇就对荣极一时的美国银行进行了分析,指出“美国银行在上世纪70年代末实力超强、地位显赫,连这样一家公司都可能跌得这么低、这么狠、这么快,那任何一家公司都有可能倒下。”

“无论你是成功还是失败,忍耐还是死亡,都取决于你对自己做了些什么,而不是世界对你做了些什么。”

接着,他列出了衰落的五个阶段。首先,他把第一阶段称作是“成功滋生出自大”。对古希腊人而言,自大就是过度的骄傲和自满,它可以把英雄变成狗熊。第一阶段的标志就是企业领导人开始变得骄傲自负,视成功为应得,而忽略了最初取得成功的基本要素。在这一阶段,对成功的夸夸其谈取代了敏锐的洞察和理解。

第二阶段就是“盲目追求数量”。在此阶段,自大催生出极度膨胀的自信,领导者们追逐增长、规模、扩张和喝彩,并以此标榜自己的成功。

第三阶段叫做“否认危机和危险”。尽管企业内部已经出现了危机的征兆,但领导者仍热衷于外部喜讯,并借此为不断增长的负面数据开脱,或是把问题定义为偶然和暂时的。

第四阶段是“挣扎求救”。此时全面衰退已显而易见,但领导者宁可跌跌撞撞地寻找解决问题的灵丹妙药,也不愿意回归最初获得成功的根本。

第五阶段是“放弃或消亡”。第四阶段延续的时间越长,第五阶段出现的可能性就越大。

柯林斯的这本书完全没有悲观厌世。他想告诉人们,研究企业的失败之道与成功之道同等重要,只有这样领导者才能及时、现实、训练有素地采取应对措施,避免重蹈历史失败案例的覆辙。正如柯林斯在书中写道:“无论你是成功还是失败,忍耐还是死亡,都取决于你对自己做了些什么,而不是世界对你做了些什么。”

我期待着柯林斯的下一本大作尽早问世。

That Pesky Hubris

Lately I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite management writers, Jim Collins, the author of the best-selling “Good to Great”, and co-author with Jim Porras of “Built to Last”.

Collins’ writing style. is direct, engaging, and unburdened by the weighty jargon, obtuse dialect, or excessive acronyms of some management experts. He has a sense of humor, and a knack for relating management learning to a variety of non-business, real life situations. His work and writing are research and data-driven, but never dry or statistical. Although his primary research target is Fortune 500 companies, he strives to uncover management lessons which hold true across national boundaries and cultures, which is why his books sell so well in many different languages around the world.

He is currently engaged in a new magnus opus, with his long-term collaborator Morten Hansen, on managing through the current environment of “turbulence”; or, what it takes to manage when the world around you seems to be spinning out of control.

Meanwhile, he usefully allowed himself to be distracted from this major new project to write a relatively short book called “How The Mighty Fall”, which is a very good read. He describes writing the preface (which the reader sees first in a book, but is usually the last task for the writer) on September 25, 2008, as all hell was breaking loose in the run-up to the worst financial crisis the world had seen since the Great Depression. He emphasizes there that the book’s timing was entirely coincidental to the timing of that crisis.

“How The Mighty Fall” takes a look at why great companies sometimes stumble and fail, and how in some cases they reverse course and return to greatness. Collins describes how the idea for the book was planted by an interesting question posed to him by a corporate CEO at an unusual gathering he was invited to address at America’s famous West Point Academy. The small but elite group gathered there consisted of 12 U.S. Army Generals, 12 CEOs, and 12 social sector leaders, brought together to discuss the future of America.

As the group hotly debated whether America was in decline or renewal, one CEO asked Collins how he would know if his own organization was in decline, or poised for a failure. This got Collins thinking and ultimately led to the research and writing of “How the Mighty Fall.”

The book begins with a discussion of the once mighty Bank of America, and observes that “if a company as powerful and well-positioned as the Bank of America was in the late 1970s can fall so far, so hard, so quickly, then any company can fall.”

“Whether you prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you.”

He then outlines the 5 Stages of Decline, beginning with Stage One which he calls “Hubris Born of Success”. Hubris to the ancient Greeks was an excessive pride which can bring a hero down. The markers of Stage One are institutional leaders who become arrogant, regarding success almost as an entitlement, losing sight of the true underlying factors that created their success in the first place. In this stage, the rhetoric of success replaces penetrating insight and understanding.

Stage Two is the “Undisciplined Pursuit of More” in which an exaggerated sense of confidence arises from hubris, and leaders chase growth, scale, expansion, acclaim etc. as markers of success.

Stage Three is Denial of Risk & Peril. Despite internal warning signs, leaders fixate on positive external results to explain away the growing array of negative data, or define problems as passing, temporary ones.

Stage Four is Grasping for Salvation, in which a sharp pattern of decline becomes obvious to all concerned, and leaders lurch for a quick, dramatic solution rather than returning to the basic disciplines which built the original success story.

Stage Five is Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death, which becomes more probable the longer the duration of Stage Four continues.

Far from being a pessimistic tome, Collins’ message is the importance of studying how companies fail, not just how they succeed, so that leaders can respond in a timely, realistic, and disciplined way rather than repeat some of the lessons of failure which history has shown us. As he writes:” Whether you prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you.”

I’m looking forward to his next book.


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