During a remarkable business career of 60+ years, Coca-Cola executive Donald Keough (1926–2015) developed an inspiring lecture on leadership failures. At the prompting of Warren Buffett, a former neighbor and friend, Keough published his lecture as Ten Commandments for Business Failure.
Keough worked for the Coca-Cola Company for 43 years and rose through the ranks to become its President and COO. Following retirement in 1993, he served on the boards of Coca-Cola, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and many other organizations.
At Coca-Cola, Keough steered the company’s global product expansion and directed its iconic brand image and enviable distribution network. He became the business world’s most celebrated non-CEO leader.
Keough gained reputation as the public face of Coca-Cola’s 1985 New Coke misadventure—he delivered an on-TV mea culpa (see YouTube video) and announced the volte-face reinstatement of “Coca-Cola Classic.”
Donald Keough’s Straightforward Analysis and Leadership Lessons
Keough’s Ten Commandments for Business Failure is a predictable, yet insightful—even if circuitous—exploration of ten (and a bonus) leadership mistakes.
- Quit Taking Risks: “Failures, for all the valuable lessons that they teach us in hindsight about management blunders, are simply risks that just didn’t work out. Such miscalculations, costly though they might be at the time, are part of the price of staying in business. As Peter Drucker pointed out nearly fifty years ago, it is management’s major task to prudently risk a company’s present assets in order to ensure its future existence.”
- Be Inflexible: “Flexibility is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and, when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances. It is, in essence, the key to Darwin’s whole notion of the survival of the fittest. … Most recalcitrant business leaders would certainly never actually characterize themselves as inflexible. More than likely they would pay lip service to a philosophy of change, expressing the usual platitudes about how they embrace change and welcome it.”
- Isolate Yourself (i.e., Be Out of Touch): “One of the traits of many of the legendary builders of business was that they had an uncanny ability to know and relate to their employees at every level … if you isolate yourself, you will not only not know what you don’t know about your business, but you will remain supremely and serenely confident that what you do know is right. Isolation, carried to its most extreme form, tends to breed a sense of almost divine right.”
- Assume Infallibility: “The infallible we-know-best attitude of management has caused many companies to ignore reality and miss opportunities … If you want to increase your chances of failure, deny the possibility that you are not always 100 percent perfect in your judgment. Ignore the fact that sometimes others do know a thing or two. … So, if you want to fail, pose as an infallible leader.”
- Play the Game Close to the Foul Line: “Business finally boils down to matters of trust consumers trust that the product will do what it promises it is supposed to-investors trust that management is competent-employees trust management to live up to its obligations. In recent years we seem to have quite a few smart, energetic people who have evidenced a rather fuzzy view of the right thing.”
- Don’t Take Time to Think: “Time to think is not a luxury. It is a necessity. As Goethe noted: “Action is easy; thought is hard.” Yet action frequently-in fact, more often than not-takes on a life of its own. We pay homage to reason, but we are held hostage to emotion. We are, after all, feeling creatures, and in the excitement of a particular endeavor once the ball is rolling, it’s difficult to stop.”
- Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants: “The narrow perspective of what appears to be genius is often the inverse of wisdom.”
- Love Your Bureaucracy: “As [Warren] Buffett said, “It’s unbelievable how much bureaucracy can build up in businesses, particularly those in which you can pass almost all of your costs to the consumer.” … On the hazards of bureaucracy: at their worst, they cannot only impede success, they can also precipitate disaster. … The more cooks there are in the kitchen, the greater the chance that bureaucratic decision making will either be deadlocked or the decision will become an exercise in group wishing. … Ultimately, a bureaucracy can become so dysfunctional that there is literally no one who can rain on the parade. The team can never make anything approaching an objective decision.”
- Send Mixed Messages: “Sending mixed or confused messages to your employees or your customers will jeopardize your competitive position, and result in failure.”
- Be Afraid of the Future: “The most serious problem with great pessimism is that it is absolutely paralyzing. People are so afraid of dire consequences that they throw their hands up in despair and do nothing. Fear of the future guarantees that the future will be a failure. … To aspire to any kind of leadership in business you simply have to be a rational optimist. One optimist in a sea of pessimists can make all the difference.”
- Lose Your Passion for Work-for Life: “A major component of happiness in the business world is finding something you love doing, whatever it might be, and then finding a way to do it. To have success you have to have a high level of unadulterated desire to get up and go to work. … The easiest way to develop an inner passion in a business setting is to focus all your mind and heart on four aspects of your world: your customers, your brands, your people, and, finally, your dreams.”
Words of Wisdom from a Distinguished Corporate Executive
Among the myriad offerings of “rules for success” volumes, books such as The Ten Commandments are distinctive for their memorable business stories and examples. Keough’s candid analyses include narratives as captivating as the historical origin of Coke, the commercial history of the xerographic machine, the Coke-Pepsi rivalry, Coca-Cola Company’s ownership of Columbia Pictures, and the New Coke debacle. When asked in an interview if New Coke was worth the risk, Keough famously replied,
I wouldn’t want to do it again. But it was an enormous learning experience, and oddly enough, it turned out to be positive for the Coca-Cola Company. Our sales increased when we brought the original formula back. The reaction from our customers was overwhelming. Once we realized that we had made a mistake, I went on television and simply said that we don’t own this brand, you do. You’ve made it clear that you want the original formula back, and you’re getting it back.
In the chapter on flexible and adaptive leadership, Keough blames Henry Ford’s stubbornness for the flagging market share of the Model T vehicle. During the mid-1920s, the industrial triumph of his mass production system and the commercial success of the Model T blinded Henry Ford to a budding customer penchant for cosmetic customization and convenience features. Electric starters, for example, were starting to be perceived as essentials and not as luxuries. Keough argues,
Henry Ford reportedly said, regarding the Model T, “They can have it in any color they want, as long as it’s black.” For a long time that was just fine. But then people began to get tired of the black tin lizzies. Yet even as America was roaring into the 1920s with bigger, faster, fancier, brightly painted automobiles, Henry Ford kept insisting that the Model T, essentially unchanged since 1908, was still what America wanted and needed and he was not going to change his mind. Inevitably, upstarts like Chevrolet and Dodge began to erode Ford’s market and seriously challenge the company’s dominant leadership. At last, more rational minds prevailed and Ford admitted the need to produce a better vehicle. After shutting down his main plant for six months, he successfully launched the Model A in 1928. But Henry Ford’s inflexibility had brought the company to the brink of disaster and cost it a competitive edge that it has never regained.
Recommendation: As a fast read, Donald Keough’s The Ten Commandments for Business Failure is worthwhile for its many nuggets of business history. Even though many of his cautionary lessons are not entirely unexpected, some are insightful. The “play the game close to the foul line” warning about values and ethics is especially thought-provoking. Keough writes, “The fact is, if you play on the edge the organization will step over the line from time to time. It is inevitable. Warren Buffett says: ‘Play to the center of the court’.”