How CEOs Become Deer in their Competitor's Headlights

Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 12:35 PM EDT

How CEOs Become Deer in Their Competitors Headlights
It's a surreal experience to watch an otherwise supremely confident and competent executive act just like a deer caught in the headlights. It's not as rare as you think; it's just unusual to see a CEO melt down in public.

In executive meetings and boardrooms, on the other hand, it happens more often than any of us - especially those doing the melting down - would like.

It's unfortunate because, as with deer and cars, it's not a "natural" occurrence. It's man made, which simply means it can be man avoided. Really.

Take the latest rash of CEO road-kill courtesy of Apple. If you're an Apple fan, employee, or shareholder, it might be fun to imagine Steve Jobs behind the wheel of ginormous monster truck, just mowing down competitive CEOs left, right, and center.

As sickeningly entertaining as that visual might be, it's far from accurate. If it was, all Apple's competitors would be one with the asphalt by now and that's decidedly not the case.

The truth is that some companies have responded to Apple's game-changing iPad and, to a lesser extent, iPhone and iPod/iTunes, about as well as could be expected. Others, well, not so much. And their CEOs looked and acted just like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

The most recent example is the co-CEOs of Blackberry maker Research in Motion, both of whom have managed fairly impressive imitations of Bambi with a monster truck bearing down on him at high speed.

At a mobile conference, Mike Lazaridis baffled All Things D's Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg with gems like, "By focusing on the tablet market, we see it as a way of freeing where smartphones can go." Huh? The co-chief seems to have no idea how RIM's Playbook tablet and Blackberry phones are positioned, either against Apple or with respect to each other, for that matter.

Meanwhile, the other half of the doe-eyed-duo, Jim Balsillie, was all over the place on an earnings call, first blaming the company's meteoric fall on the "natural aging" of its smartphone portfolio, then saying "there's been a transition" (thank you captain obvious), and finally claiming that RIM is "straight in the middle of the whole tablet mobile computing space" and "strategically we feel fantastic ..."

It's like a sadistic Disney tragedy:
Roll tape: (The announcer whispers) "Bambi remains very still as the truck steadily approaches, here it comes, just a few yards away, and ... Oh my God! Oh, the humanity!"
Now, don't think for a minute there's something in the spring water up there in the Mounties. Nope, you can find deer in the headlights executives virtually anywhere, even in Finland where once-dominant cellphone maker Nokia pretty much missed the entire multi-year smartphone transition:

Former CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo actually expressed extreme optimism about Nokia's new line of Symbian-based smartphones ... shortly before the board canned him, and his successor - Stephen Elop - chose about the only option left by dumping the whole project in favor of Microsoft's smartphone operating system.

Likewise, Acer's Gianfranco Lanci and LG Electronics' Nam Yong both bit the dust by getting caught completely flatfooted while Apple's groundbreaking iPad tablet decimated the netbook and entry-level notebook markets.

Then there's Sony CEO Howard Stringer who somehow manages to keep his job while the once unbeatable consumer electronics giant gets repeatedly run over by one competitor after another in agonizing slow motion. It's just embarrassing, if you ask me.

I can go on and on, but that's all public stuff. What happens in the hallowed halls of a company's corporate headquarters, on the other hand, is much more telling. It explains what all these executives have in common.

Make no mistake; they're all smart, talented, experienced leaders. In every case, the same thing makes them stumble and, ultimately, stare in disbelief as their empires and dreams crumble around them.

After enough trips to the Kool-Aid fountain, they become drunk on their own egos. They come to believe that they're special, invincible. That they possess some sort of power that will protect them and their companies in the face of disruptive technology from formidable competitors.

Of course, they're wrong about that. They're not special, just flesh and blood humans. Since they don't believe that, they fail to act, or act appropriately to counter the threat. Like deer in the headlights. The ultimate irony is this: a huge ego doesn't make leaders strong, but renders them weak and powerless.

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Image: laffy4k via Flickr

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