Will the real Daffy Duck(s) please stand up!

Posted on January 21, 2011


“Let me explain it to you this way Jon,” offered one of my lecturers in a course I was taking . . . “it’s like you are a passenger on the Titanic and after striking the iceberg you run to the Captain’s deck to let him know what happened and discover that the Captain is Daffy Duck!”

It’s been many years (give or take a few) since I first heard that analogy as a means of explaining the cast of characters from the book Unstable at the Top. Written by management consultants Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller, Unstable at the Top was a collaborative effort that sought “to combine action and reflection in helping companies overcome leadership problems.”

It really was a fascinating read in which corporate management presented what the authors referred to as “somewhat frightening images,” such as the bank executive who wore Mickey Mouse ears at work.

Of course the odd perhaps even borderline personalities that have been at the helm of countless companies (and still are today given the shenanigans at HP, Oracle et al), were not limited to the lesser known lights as icons of business such as Henry Ford, Tex Thornton of Litton Industries, Addressograph’s Roy Ash, Harold Geneen of ITT, John DeLorean, Bernie Cornfeld, the Hunt brothers all made Kets de Vries and Miller’s “unstable” list.

So what does this tell us in light of today’s post by ZDNet’s Larry Dignan titled “HP revamps board; Change long overdue?” The old saying that “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps” comes to mind. Not bad, but doesn’t really hit the mark in that I would imagine that sanity amongst the rank and file of these companies are generally pretty stable.

From my perspective, I still have to stick with the Daffy Duck analogy. Think about it for a minute . . . you have companies that consistently fail to deliver real value to the market operating in a vacuum which seems to ignore the fact that the business models upon which their enterprises rose to prominence are becoming the equivalent of a bad party joke.

Despite the dire warning signs that are pretty hard to miss, they instead become entangled in incestuous hiring practices accentuated by sexual romps that are reminiscent of the old “Carry On” movies, amid accusations of fudged expense accounts.

Carry on Cruising - which one's Ellison?


Or to put it another way, they have hit the proverbial iceberg and are taking on water at an alarming rate, yet function in what seems to be an oblivious manifestation of a Dallas episode with shades of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Now I am not going to pretend that I am a fan of Larry Ellison’s – never have been and never will be since I believe that he is the epitome of the guy being at the right place at the right time – not a lot of talent, just a lot of greed and moxie. A sentiment that first took hold when in 1990 Oracle almost went bankrupt because of a seriously flawed marketing strategy that recorded and paid bonuses on future sales that ultimately never materialized. Nothing like overstating earnings to create the illusion of success! A mirage that unfortunately is a very real experience in terms of Oracle clients actually getting what they paid for on time and on budget.

Like the great illusionists they are, Ellison’s fellow magicians at SAP and HP have delivered similar results to their respective client bases. This is the reason why Dingman’s disclosure that HP’s new CEO Leo Apotheker, who was the former CEO at SAP, and the company’s chairman Ray Lane, who surprise, surprise was the former president of Oracle have teamed up to make HP more of a software player, is a scary proposition.

In short, now instead of having only one Daffy Duck we have three!

All I can say to these organizations’ employees and clients is . . . That’s All Folks!


Posted in: Commentary