When CEOs Screw up: “I am Spiderman”

I once wrote speeches for the head of an IBM operating unit whose go-to line when he screwed things up was: “The staff let me down.”

I once wrote speeches for the head of an IBM operating unit whose go-to line when he screwed things up was: “The staff let me down.”

It was indicative of the low regard he had for the people who supported him.

An example. I was in his conference room with his chief of staff one afternoon, reviewing a draft, when a fly landed on the speech. The CEO whacked it with his bare hand and killed it. Then he flicked the fly's carcass with his thumb and forefinger -- launching it right into the chief of staff’s eye.

“Did I get ya’?” he asked, gleaming with pride at his marksmanship as the staffer daubed his tearing eye.

I enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude a couple of weeks ago when I watched Barack Obama standing embarrassed at the lectern because his staffer had failed to place the speech there beforehand.

Here’s a clip of what happened. Listen for two things:

1) The edge in Obama’s voice when he twice called out to his “people” – which betrayed the pique beneath his attempt to make light of what was happening

2) The sound of the speechwriter tripping as he dashed onstage to deliver the missing manuscript


When executives are on the podium, it’s theater. It’s his or her face that everybody’s watching. The last thing a speechwriter wants to do is cause embarrassment.

On the other hand, Obama himself has owned up to the fact that, “as president you’re held responsible for everything, but you don’t always have control of everything.”

It was a reminder of my own experiences with a couple of corporate speakers.

In one speech, the CEO promised his sales force that he would resolve the supply problem they were having with their manufacturing plant in Raleigh, N. C. I had given him a quick humor line to underscore the unacceptable performance of the manufacturing unit: “It’s gotten so bad, they’re telling Raleigh jokes in Poland.”

Back in those days. neither the CEO nor I were sensitive to the fact that we were poking fun at the manufacturing people at the expense of employees of Polish descent.

He got complaints about that line. But he took responsibility for the words I had put in his mouth. Our relationship remained strong, and I learned a big lesson -- nothing teaches responsibility more than having someone put their trust in you.

Then there was the day a Chairman of the Board for whom I wrote mistakenly started to deliver the wrong luncheon speech. His assistant had put into his three-ring briefing book as background another speaker’s speech. The Chairman read the entire first page before he realized his mistake. He simply turned to the correct tab, where he found his speech, and started over.

Afterwards, he returned to his office and stayed behind closed doors for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t know what he did in there, but he must have had a long, long talk with himself.

Maybe it went something like Peter Parker’s concluding soliloquy in the first Spiderman movie: “With great power comes great responsibility. This is my gift and my curse. I am Spiderman.”

In my next blog: When the CEO Sees Red

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  • Peter Yaremko
    published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 08:31:07 -0400