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Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes Hardcover – June 2, 2003

40 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Is there a more timely topic for a business book than brilliant executives running their companies into the ground? Dartmouth business professor Finkelstein has been on the case for six years, researching how otherwise intelligent people can manage to botch things up. Here, he dredges up old corporate screwups (like R. J. Reynolds's smokeless cigarettes) and new ones, too (WorldCom and Tyco, among others). There's a certain amount of schadenfreude involved, as the author crisply and incisively picks apart disaster after disaster, but the lessons drawn from this lengthy study are, for the most part, vastly unsurprising. While each company profiled tends to fail in its own way, there are common traits among top execs, such as a propensity to eliminate "anyone who isn't 100 percent behind them" and to "underestimate major obstacles." While Finkelstein suggests avoiding such destructive behaviors, the truth is, sometimes it's human nature to be blind to one's own weaknesses. And that's a mystery no book can fully deconstruct.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


" Casting off standard management fare, Finkelstein has raised eyebrows with his unconventional research.... lessons are more profound say students." -- Business Week, June 9, 2003

"...managers might be better advised to contemplate how companies fail...Finkelstein identifies 'seven habits of spectacularly unsuccessful people...'" -- The London Times, June 5, 2003

"Sydney Finkelstein...[conducted]...the largest and most comprehensive study of business failure...The result is a treasure trove of blunders." -- Financial Times, May 12, 2003

"Watch the parade of corporate disasters that passes through...'Truly colossal blunders don't come in isolation, they come in clusters.'" -- The Economist, May 31, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 318 pages
  • Publisher: Portfolio Hardcover; First Edition edition (June 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591840104
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591840107
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #385,661 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses on Leadership and Strategy. He teaches executive education at the Tuck School (where he serves as the Faculty Director of the flagship Tuck Executive Program), and also has experience working with executives at Northwestern, Wharton, Duke, Bocconi, London Business School, Australian Graduate School of Management, Melbourne Business School, Hanoi School of Business, the Chalmers School (Sweden) and the Helsinki School of Economics. He holds degrees from Concordia University and the London School of Economics, as well as a Ph.D. from Columbia University in strategic management.

Professor Finkelstein has published 15 books and over 70 articles, with several bestsellers, including the #1 bestseller in the U.S. and Japan, Why Smart Executives Fail ( Based on a six-year study of 51 companies and 200 interviews of business leaders, the book identifies the fundamental reasons why major mistakes happen, points out the early warning signals that are critical for investors and managers alike, and offers ideas on how organizations can develop a capability of learning from corporate mistakes. On Fortune Magazine's list of Best Business Books, the Wall Street Journal called it "a marvel - a jargon-free business book based on serious research that offers genuine insights with clarity and sometimes even wit ... It should be required reading not just for executives but for investors as well." It has also been featured in such media as the Financial Times, Business Week, the London Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, Fast Company, Across the Board, and Entrepreneurship, among others, and has been translated into 11 different languages. In Professor Finkelstein's follow-up book, Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep it From Happening to You (Harvard Business Press) (, published in 2009, he turns his attention to such major strategic decisions as the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous business cases to explain why decision-makers sometimes think they're right when they are really wrong. The book takes up recent research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and management to not only document why things go wrong, but also to offer a series of solutions that reduce our vulnerability to falling into the traps that lead to bad decisions.

Professor Finkelstein has had three books nominated for the Academy of Management's Terry Book Award, the most prestigious such honor in the field. His other awards include Finalist for the Academy of Management Executive Best Paper Award (2004), the McKinsey & Company Strategic Management Society Best Conference Paper Prize Honorable Mention (2002), the Best Paper Award from the Academy of Management Executive for his article "Leveraging Intellect" (1997), two Citations of Excellence from ANBAR, the world's leading guide to management journal literature (1997 & 1998), the Cenafoni Prize for research in Entrepreneurial Strategy (1991), and finalist for the A.T. Kearney award for the best research in strategic management (1988). He is also a Fellow of the Academy of Management.

Professor Finkelstein is listed in the "World's Top 25 Leadership Gurus." He has participated on numerous CEO forums, been interviewed or had his work appear in numerous leading media outlets, and served as consultant and speaker for major companies around the world, including Aetna, American Express, Bank of Montreal, Barclays, Boeing, Cerberus, Chevron, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, GE, Glaxo, , ING, ITT, J&J, JP Morgan Chase, Mayo Clinic, Korn-Ferry, McGraw-Hill, McKinsey, Monsanto, Morgan Stanley, Novartis, PwC, Raytheon, Roche, Russell Reynolds, and UBS.

To stay up-to-date on Professor Finkelstein's latest insights on leadership and decision-making, follow him on Twitter @sydfinkelstein.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Initially, Finkelstein really didn't understand, nor did I before reading his book, how and why can so many business leaders fall so far so fast. "How can so many people be do disastrously wrong? What can possibly account for the scores of business failures we see each year, in different industries, and even in different countries? And how can we prevent this sort of thing from happening again?" Finkelstein devoted more than six years of research to answering questions such as these. "My goal was not only to understand why businesses break down and fail, but to focus on the people behind these failures; not only to understand how to avoid these disasters, but to anticipate the early warning signs of failure. Ultimately, I wanted to move beyond ad hoc explanations of failure on a case-by-case basis and expose the roots of these breakdowns in a definitive way." Whereas Peters and Waterman set out in search of excellence, Finkelstein and his research associates set out in search of failure...and achieved that objective. What they found and what they learned are now offered in this brilliant book.
He organizes his material within three Parts: Great Corporate Mistakes, focusing on four different business challenges: creating successful new ventures, managing mergers and acquisitions, coping with innovation and change, and developing winning strategies in the face of new competitive pressures. In Part II, he identifies the underlying causes of failure evident even across different types of corporate mistakes. In this Part, Finkelstein offers a deeper analysis of the common patterns of behavior that executives in failing companies exhibited. In Part III, Finkelstein shifts his (and his reader's) attention to explicitly developing two critical ideas that have stayed in the background to this point.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Robert Stackowiak on August 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a book that tries to state the obvious and draw generalized conclusions from specific business failure cases... and that may be be most troubling aspect of it. To quickly summarize, it calls attention that executives at companies that have failed usually have huge egos that blind them to change, blind them to the scope of risk they are taking on, and cause them not to listen to opposing views or recognize early-on that key decisions they made are not correct.

Great... but CEOs at successful companies also seem to exhibit many of these characteristics. If they don't have egos this large, they don't make it to the top. If they change their minds "too frequently" in reaction to change, they are seen as wishy-washy. If they recite the details in the risk, they are seen as not having vision and understanding the big picture.

In the end, it is all about degree, I think. Unfortunately, this didn't come through to me in reading this book... and I think the suggestion another reviewer about having a control group is an excellent one. There are companies that are successful that have executives that exhibit many (if not all) of these characteristics... but there are subtle differences in organizational empowerment and the like that would be useful in understanding. It is not just about the executives themselves where avoiding failure or gaining success is concerned.

I still give the book the positive rating I have because it does provide a lot of food for thought and there is a lot of value in the case studies that are presented.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As a MBA and manager, I've been reading business books for years, and we all know what that can be like. Weak research, spotty stories, stilted prose. When I picked up Why Smart Executives Fail (don't judge a book by its cover, but this cover is great), it seemed like I was entering a different genre.
The writing is highly entertaining, the stories are fascinating, and the author's (Finkelstein is a b-school prof from Dartmouth) insights are nuanced and carefully drawn. It's hard to imagine a business book being a page-turner, but this one is as close as I've ever seen. All the front page stories are here - Enron, Tyco, ImClone, Adelphia, WorldCom, but there is also a host of companies whose crimes were more strategic in nature - Motorola in the cell phone business, J&J in the stent business, Rubbermaid, LA Gear, and even the Boston Red Sox.
The stories of what went wrong and why are sprinkled with quotes from interviews the author conducted with CEOs, other managers, competitors, and customers, which I found gave me a much better understanding of the key lessons than any previous press accounts I had read. Topping it all off is the author's storytelling skills, which keep you almost entranced. This is one business book that you will want to read cover to cover.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on June 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Someone said, and I believe, that "Success is the result of a series of failures from which one has learned." This book is filled with important and interesting failures that you can learn from. Most business books focus on and celebrate successes in the business world, but here the author has focused on some of the largest blunders in recent history (e.g. Enron, Iridium), as well as lesser known mistakes. What makes it so valuable is that Finkelstein has taken a systematic approach to analyzing these missteps to find patterns that will be recognizable to anyone who has worked in a business. Beyond that, the book offers excellent insight on ways to get back on track and avoid a fate similar to the companies studied.
As for the enjoyable part, the book is told through a series of anecdotes and in-depth retellings of mostly familiar blunders. Reinforced with insider interviews and extensive research of the contemporary media coverage, these stories come alive making it very readable. This combination of message and method make "Why Smart Executives Fail" an extremely valuable and somewhat unique resource.
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