Career Derailment is Only a Blunder Away -- Offers Tips for Avoiding Classic Mistakes

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The Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal serves as a good reminder that executives and managers can never review the leadership basics too often. Secretary Rumsfeld's reported response to the prison crisis provides key learning points on which to hang The Leader's Golden Rules.

Although most leaders learn the 'rules of the road' early enough to avoid career-breaking blunders, today's corporate landscape leaves little room for error.

"Unfortunately, there are few mentors in today's workplace to show new managers the ropes, many learn the basic-but-big lessons the hard way," says Linda Davidson, president of

"On the other hand," says Davidson, "we've seen even the most experienced leaders break basic leadership rules. Secretary Rumsfeld's handling of the Iraqi prison scandal is a perfect example. It would be difficult to write a Harvard business case that could offer stronger learning points for what not to do." offers The Leader's Golden Rules to help leaders avoid eight classic mistakes:

1. No Surprises

The defense secretary failed to tell President Bush that photos of prisoner abuse were in media hands. As a result, the president and Congress were caught off guard when the press released the ugly details.

The Lesson: Never let your boss get blindsided by news he should have heard first from you. Put the dirty details on the table early so damage control can begin. As Henry Kissinger once said, "What will come out eventually should come out immediately."

2. Develop Your PR Instincts

Though hard to believe, Secretary Rumsfeld failed to anticipate the human relations disaster that would arise from photos of American soldiers abusing Muslim prisoners.

The Lesson: See the situation through outsider eyes. When handling employee issues, managers should consider how a judge or jury might view the case if the employee takes legal action. It might not change the manager's decision, but it should prompt better planning, documentation and communication.

3. Do Your Own Due Diligence

Secretary Rumsfeld indicated in his testimony to Congress that he first saw the prisoner abuse photos in news reports and didn't view the original photos (which he described as "radioactive") until early May.

The Lesson: Ignorance is never a good defense. As the leader, you have ultimate responsibility for what occurs on your watch. In sensitive situations, go straight to the source and get the unvarnished facts.

4. Don't Shoot the Messenger

Critics suggest Secretary Rumsfeld's intimidating management style led staff to squelch bad news, possibly leaving him unaware of the impending public relations disaster.

The Lesson: Be approachable and establish a trusting environment so your staff will tell you what you need to know not what you want to hear.

5. Build Bridges

Critics attack what they refer to as Secretary Rumsfeld's my-way-or-the-highway style, claiming he's alienated allies and colleagues and lacks loyalty from those expected to cover his back.

The Lesson: You need friends at the top. The higher you go in an organization the more empathy, influence and teamwork matter. If building relationships isn't your strength, hire a coach to improve.

6. Establish Clear Standards

The initial investigation into prisoner abuse suggests military guards had little training, no rules and weren't instructed to follow Geneva Convention standards for prisoner treatment.

The Lesson: A recipe for disaster. Establish a standard code of conduct and communicate it often; have reliable mechanisms in place to monitor results and ensure consistent management practices are applied.

7. Don't Skimp on Resources When Success is Critical

Secretary Rumsfeld adopted a war-time strategy some describe as do-more-with-less. Reports suggest forces were "chronically stretched thin" which led to a lack of supervision and disgruntled workers.

The Lesson: There's a right and wrong time to tighten the belt. Don't squeeze resources in critical areas where failure could lead to irrecoverable loss or irreparable damage.

8. Under-Promise and Over-Deliver

Blind optimism or flawed planning? There's a widening gap between Secretary Rumsfeld's war vision and current reality.

The Lesson: Credibility plunges when the gap between customer promise and customer reality widens. Add a cushion when estimating cost, time, size or scope -- 10% is a general rule of thumb. Can't get sign-off from decision makers unless you severely understate resource projections or inflate deliverables? Cut and run, the project is doomed to fail.

Additional resources for working smart, building leadership skills, advancing career, balancing life and modeling best practices can be found at

About provides articles, tools and community to help new-economy leaders work smarter, balance better, recover faster, and ultimately master life at the top. Site content addresses the unique personal, professional and whole-life needs of today's leaders.

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Linda Davidson
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