How the Mighty Fall




  • History shows, repeatedly, that the mighty can fall. The Egyptian Old Kingdom, the Chou Dynasty, the Hittite Empire—all fell. Athens fell. Rome fell. Even Britain, which stood a century before as a global superpower, saw its position erode. (View Highlight)
  • “When you are at the top of the world, the most powerful nation on Earth, the most successful company in your industry, the best player in your game, your very power and success might cover up the fact that you’re already on the path of decline.” That question—how would you know?—captured my imagination and became part of the inspiration for this book. (View Highlight)
  • I’ve come to see institutional decline like a disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages; easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. An institution can look strong on the outside but already be sick on the inside, dangerously on the cusp of a precipitous fall. (View Highlight)
  • Entering the 1980s, Bank of America held a revered position and was widely regarded as one of the greatest companies in the world. Within eight years it would post some of the biggest losses in U.S. banking history, rattle the financial markets to the point of briefly depressing the U.S. dollar, watch its cumulative stock performance fall more than 80% behind the general stock market, face a serious takeover threat from a rival California bank, cut its dividend for the first time in 53 years, sell off its corporate headquarters to help meet capital requirements, see the last Giannini family board member resign in outrage, oust its chief executive, bring a former CEO out of retirement to save the company, and endure a barrage of critical articles in the business press, with titles such as “The Incredible Shrinking Bank” and “Better Stewards (Corporate and Otherwise) Went Down on the Titanic.” Anyone predicting such a fall as the decade began would have been viewed as a pessimistic outlier. (View Highlight)
  • If a company as powerful and well-positioned as Bank of America in the late 1970s could fall so far, so hard, so quickly, then any company can. If companies such as Motorola (MOT), Circuit City (CCTYQ), and Fannie Mae (FNM)—icons that once served as paragons of excellence—can succumb to the forces of gravity, then no one is immune. If companies such as Zenith and A&P, once the unquestioned champions in their fields, can plummet from great to irrelevant, then we should be wary about our own success. (View Highlight)
  • But all is not gloom. By understanding the five stages of decline we uncovered in our research for How the Mighty Fall, leaders can substantially increase the odds of reversing decline before it is too late—or even better, stave off decline in the first place. Decline can be avoided. The seeds of decline can be detected early. And decline can be reversed (as we’ve seen with notable cases such as IBM (IBM), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Merck (MRK), and Nucor (NUE)). The mighty can fall, but they can often rise again. (View Highlight)
  • we identified a set of once-great companies that fell and constructed a set of “success contrasts” that had risen in the same industries during the era when our primary study companies declined. Our principal effort focused on a two-part question: What happened leading up to the point at which decline became visible, and what did the company do once it began to fall? (View Highlight)
  • You do not visibly fall until Stage 4! Companies can be well into Stage 3 decline and still look and feel great, yet be right on the cusp of a huge fall. Decline can sneak up on you, and—seemingly all of a sudden—you’re in big trouble. (View Highlight)
  • Our research indicates that organizational decline is largely self-inflicted, and recovery largely within our own control. (View Highlight)
  • STAGE 1: HUBRIS BORN OF SUCCESS (View Highlight)
  • Great enterprises can become insulated by success; accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward for a while, even if its leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline. Stage 1 kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place (View Highlight)
  • When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”), decline will very likely follow. (View Highlight)
  • Luck and chance play a role in many successful outcomes, and those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success—and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities—have succumbed to hubris (View Highlight)
  • The best leaders we’ve studied never presume they’ve reached ultimate understanding of all the factors that brought them success. For one thing, they retain a somewhat irrational fear that perhaps their success stems in large part from fortuitous circumstance. Suppose you discount your own success (“We might have been just really lucky/were in the right place at the right time/have been living off momentum/have been operating without serious competition”) and thereby worry incessantly about how to make yourself stronger and better-positioned for the day your good luck runs out. What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Minimal: If you’re wrong, you’ll just be that much stronger by virtue of your disciplined approach. But suppose instead you succumb to hubris and attribute success to your own superior qualities (“We deserve success because we’re so good/so smart/so innovative/so amazing”). What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Significant. You just might find yourself surprised and unprepared when you wake up to discover your vulnerabilities too late. (View Highlight)
  • Hubris from Stage 1 (“We’re so great, we can do anything!”) leads right to Stage 2, the Undisciplined Pursuit of More—more scale, more growth, more acclaim, more of whatever those in power see as “success.” Companies in Stage 2 stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place, making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence—or both. When an organization grows beyond its ability to fill its key seats with the right people, it has set itself up for a fall. Although complacency and resistance to change remain dangers to any successful enterprise, overreaching better captures how the mighty fall. (View Highlight)
  • Discontinuous leaps into areas in which you have no burning passion is undisciplined. Taking action inconsistent with your core values is undisciplined. Investing heavily in new arenas where you cannot attain distinctive capability, better than your competitors, is undisciplined. Launching headlong into activities that do not fit with your economic or resource engine is undisciplined. Addiction to scale is undisciplined. To neglect your core business while you leap after exciting new adventures is undisciplined. (View Highlight)
  • STAGE 3: DENIAL OF RISK AND PERIL (View Highlight)
  • n Stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether. (View Highlight)
  • Bill Gore, founder of W.L. Gore & Associates, articulated a helpful concept for decision-making and risk-taking, what he called the “waterline” principle. Think of being on a ship, and imagine that any decision gone bad will blow a hole in the side of the ship. If you blow a hole above the waterline (where the ship won’t take on water and possibly sink), you can patch the hole, learn from the experience, and sail on. But if you blow a hole below the waterline, you can find yourself facing gushers of water pouring in, pulling you toward the ocean floor. And if it’s a big enough hole, you might go down really fast, just like some of the financial firm catastrophes of 2008. To be clear, great enterprises do make big bets, but they avoid big bets that could blow holes below the waterline. (View Highlight)
  • How does its leadership respond? By lurching for a quick salvation or by getting back to the disciplines that brought about greatness in the first place? Those who grasp for salvation have fallen into Stage 4. Common “saviors” include a charismatic visionary leader, a bold but untested strategy, a radical transformation, a dramatic cultural revolution, a hoped-for blockbuster product, a “game-changing” acquisition, or any number of other silver-bullet solutions. Initial results from taking dramatic action may appear positive, but they do not last. (View Highlight)
  • The very moment when we need to take calm, deliberate action, we run the risk of doing the exact opposite and bringing about the very outcomes we most fear. By grasping about in fearful, frantic reaction, late Stage 4 companies accelerate their own demise. (View Highlight)
  • If you want to reverse decline, be rigorous about what not to do. (View Highlight)
  • The longer a company remains in Stage 4, repeatedly grasping for silver bullets, the more likely it will spiral downward. In Stage 5, accumulated setbacks and expensive false starts erode financial strength and individual spirit to such an extent that leaders abandon all hope of building a great future. In some cases the company’s leader just sells out; in other cases the institution atrophies into utter insignificance; and in the most extreme cases the enterprise simply dies outright. (View Highlight)
  • The signature of the truly great vs. the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty. It’s the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before. Great nations can decline and recover. Great companies can fall and recover. Great social institutions can fall and recover. And great individuals can fall and recover. As long as you never get entirely knocked out of the game, there remains hope. (View Highlight)
  • Churchill’s simple mantra: Never give in—never, never, never, never. Never give in. Be willing to kill failed business ideas, even to shutter big operations you’ve been in for a long time, but never give up on the idea of building a great company. Be willing to evolve into an entirely different portfolio of activities, even to the point of zero overlap with what you do today, but never give up on the principles that define your culture. Be willing to embrace loss, to endure pain, to temporarily lose freedoms, but never give up faith in your ability to prevail. Be willing to form alliances with former adversaries, to accept necessary compromise, but never—ever—give up on your core values. (View Highlight)