'Managing for Success' shows how 7 deadly sins poison corporate culture

 'Managing for Success' shows how 7 deadly sins poison corporate culture
Management historian Morgen Witzel takes issue with books on business failure for implying most leaders and organizations recover from setbacks. (PUNIT PARANJPE, AFP/Getty Images)

Management historian Morgen Witzel's latest book is ill-served by its title: "Managing for Success: Spotting Danger Signals — And Fixing Problems Before They Happen."

It will deter some readers by leading them to expect a flabby manual of upbeat lessons for middle managers aspiring vainly to become chief executives.


In fact, the book — published by Bloomsbury — is about a far more interesting and dramatic topic: management incompetence, corporate failure and how to prevent them.

As Witzel writes, there is often no coming back from corporate catastrophe.

In fact, he takes issue with previous books on business failure for implying most leaders and organizations recover from such setbacks: "Managerial incompetence is not consequence-free. It kills companies. And sometimes, too, it kills people."

This forceful early warning of the importance of managing well gives the book a real moral impetus.

When Witzel talks about the seven deadly sins of management — arrogance, ignorance, fear, greed, lust, linear thinking and lack of purpose — he is not just using a colorful figure of speech.

His style is always engaging, and occasionally humorous, but by the end of the book you can smell the brimstone.

The annals of defective management are packed with rich examples.

The two most comprehensively described in the book are the rapid ascent and slow decline of Ford, after Henry Ford succumbed to hubris and greed in the 1920s and 1930s, and the cataclysmic collapse of Lehman Bros. in 2008.

Other episodes of inept and unethical business behavior help supply 50 "warning flags" of impending doom, planted throughout the text.

The overriding lesson is that many disasters are not the result of a single decision or a single bad leader. In fact, they are the outcome of years or even decades in which the seven sins progressively poison corporate cultures.

Witzel, a native of British Columbia and now a British researcher, writer and lecturer , can be an unforgiving teacher.

He stamps on managers' excuses for failure, such as "black swan" events. He attacks their increasing dependency on PowerPoint, spreadsheets and what he nicely describes as "anxious precision."

He condemns their greed for growth and profit, and their obsession with "winning," but also their indecisiveness and cowardice.

At the same time, though, the author reminds managers that they have an important and humane mission to make things better for customers and staff.


Instead of worrying about targets, they should constantly remind their teams "why the business exists, why it is doing what it is doing, why that matters."

Those who cannot find such a mission or do not believe in it should quit and make way for managers who can and do.

Some of the lessons here seem well-worn. But since managers have a habit of making the same mistakes as their predecessors, they bear repetition.

One recurrent error is to sacrifice seemingly softer, longer-range management priorities — such as purpose and culture — to hard short-term demands to increase quarterly earnings or improve shareholder returns.

But Witzel shows that, when wielded against corporate failure, such tools have a surprisingly hard edge.

Andrew Hill is the management editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.