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Becoming a leader in business: What we can learn from infamous CEO blunders

Picture by Shutterstock
Picture by Shutterstock

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The role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is about as high as you can get in the corporate food chain. It's a position that carries a lot of responsibility and many people spend their lives trying to get themselves the title.

If you're one of these people, or even just someone looking to advance their career, there's a lot to be learnt from those already at the top of the corporate game.

The truth is, you can spend years working your way up at a company or even formally qualify yourself with a Graduate Certificate in Leadership, but there are some things you can only learn by making mistakes.

Lucky for you, plenty of CEOs have already made some serious blunders, so you can learn from them, instead of sacrificing your own career.

Here are five of the top things you can take away from some of history's most infamous CEOs.

1 - Stay awake, and open to new opportunities

Kay Whitmore worked at Kodak for 36 years, working his way up through roles including general manager over Latin America, assistant general manager of the U.S. and Canadian Photographic division, and company Vice President, before finally being appointed CEO in 1990.

An impressive career that is, unfortunately for Whitmore, often remembered only by his mistakes. In Whitmore's first year as CEO, he fell asleep in a meeting with Bill Gates where they were discussing integrating Kodak's products with Windows.

Then, he refused to invest in digital camera technology, despite the company having developed it prior to his appointment. Kodak went into decline and in 2012, was forced to declare bankruptcy - many people attributing this to the company falling behind in the new digital world.

There are two lessons to be learnt from Whitmore. Firstly, rest. Even when you're busy. You don't want to perform poorly due to tiredness and you certainly don't want to fall asleep in meetings. Secondly, be open to new (and even scary) opportunities.

Technology is developing faster than ever before and if you're not open to new, unknown and different opportunities then you will fall behind.

2 - Work as a team

Carly Fiorina was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP) from 1999 to 2005. Fiorina had a lot of success during her time at HP, including working to build the company's commitment to social responsibility and managing the business through some of its most economically difficult periods.

However, it has also been reported that as a CEO, she did not listen to the advice of her team, and made decisions on her own.

One of these decisions was a merger between HP and computer company Compaq - a decision she was reportedly advised against by shareholders and has since been widely ridiculed for as one of many factors with significant financial implications for HP.

Fiorina has had a long and successful career but is often reduced to her controversial decisions in her time as HP CEO.

If Fiorina had listened to those around her, HP may have seen more success during a difficult period, and there may be more focus on this success rather than the downfalls of her decisions in discussions around Fiorina's tenure.

Picture by Shutterstock
Picture by Shutterstock

3 - Pay attention (and do things by the book)

Kenneth Lay was the CEO and chairman of energy company Enron Corporation for over 15 years, serving as one of America's highest-paid CEOs. In 2001, Enron was exposed for fabricating financial records and the company's success, eventually going bust in 2001 and owing creditors $65 billion.

As the CEO, Lay was convicted on six counts of fraud and conspiracy and four counts of bank fraud, but claimed he was unaware of the wrongdoings of the company.

If Lay's story of being unaware is true, it goes to show the importance of paying attention and being involved and aware of every aspect of a company's operation.

If he really was aware, it demonstrates the importance of doing things properly, because it will always catch up to you if you don't.

4 - Remain humble, and learn from others

Thomas Edison is one of the greatest inventors in history, but he is not remembered fondly as the founder of the Edison Phonograph Company (later renamed The Edison Company), which he founded in 1887 to profit from his phonograph technology.

Reports claim that Edison consistently believed his products were better than those of his competitors, and promoted them even when alternatives were proven to be superior. For example, Edison pushed his wax cylinder technology for audio recording even after flat disks were recognised as more convenient.

When he later tried to expand his business, he fell behind competitors selling the preferred technology. The Edison Company shut down in 1929.

While Edison was without a doubt an incredibly intelligent and groundbreaking inventor, his inability to recognise the success of competing products halted the progression of his business.

It's important to remain open to ideas other than your own, to keep tabs on the market and to recognise the success of competitors in order to better your own product.

5 - Value your employees

Henry Frick was the chairman of Carnegie Steel Company, he was famously anti-union.

In 1892, there was a strike at the Homestead steel plant, which Frick managed, in response to his attempts at cutting workers' wages. The conflict resulted in 16 deaths and many injuries, including to Frick as someone attempted to assassinate him.

While modern day union action may not play out the same way as this one, the strike at Homestead is a pertinent reminder of the importance of valuing your employees, because fair wages and treatment can be life or death.

While all of these CEOs and leaders saw success in their fields, they also made mistakes that ultimately cost them in different ways.

Mistakes are normal and expected, but take what you can from these examples and hopefully, your mistakes won't be so dramatic, dire or memorable.