Friday, April 24, 2009

Famous Last Words: “But I MEANT WELL!”

Most of us entrepreneurs mean well when we speak. So why do our words and gestures get us into so much trouble sometimes?

We are driven and committed, dreamers in a hurry. Sometimes, in the heat of battle or in an evaluation of a – well to us an out and out slacker who outrages our work ethic - our language gets “carried away,” and we get into trouble. We “lose it”, and we regret it later.

We have to watch our mouth, as they say, as much as we watch our patents, our cash flow, and our brand. More, actually.

We are public people when we launch. And that means we live in a glass bubble, especially if we “catch on.”

Henry Ford is one of the undisputed geniuses of modern times. By 1920 one out of two cars in the US was a Ford. A brilliant innovator, his manufacturing methods transformed the world. And yet, as he grew in power, he began to have less patience with his own people and with customers.

One of his workers approached him with excitement and said “Mr. Ford! I have an idea!” Ford snapped at him “I don’t pay you to have ideas!” As to a suggestion that he respond to customers’ changing tastes, he quipped “They can get any color they want, as long as it’s Black.”

And, slowly, Ford began to lose market share.

Shockley, the Nobel-Prize winning inventor of the transistor, began to spout racist comments. So did the great baseball legend Ty Cobb. Nixon laced his white House – recorded – conversations with angry expletives against anyone he disliked – a long list.

The CEO of Pfizer and Home Depot were jettisoned by their boards for acting and speaking too abrasively. And yet, if you ask them, they will tell you how much they cared, how vivid their vision was, and how difficult it is to “soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” That is a statement I’ve heard from many an entrepreneur.

Their passion was ultimately seen as toxic. A strength becoming an uncontrolled weakness.

The CEO of Home Depot, by the way, is now CEO of embattled Chrysler. He now speaks like a statesman: caring, visionary, patient and thoughtful.

There is a valuable lesson there for all of us. Meaning well isn’t enough. Your words must do well, or they could be your famous last words.

Michael A. Barr

Today’s article is presented by the newest member of our Startup Professionals team, Michael A. Barr. His executive coaching is just one of a long list of business and academic credentials he brings to the table. Check him out on our website. You will be hearing more from him. We have a lot to learn.

Marty Zwilling



  1. I think the cause of these examples has little to do with meaning and a lot to do with supersized ego. As we achieve success in our endeavors it is, oh so easy, to start thinking how special we are.

    "If I had a little humility, I would be perfect" - Ted Turner

  2. Greg,

    How do you battle a supersized ego when things are going well?

    Thanks for the Turner quote. And for reading us.