“You have enemies? Good. That means that you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

It is an old adage that political leaders need enemies, and that if they don’t actually have one at any specific time, then they will have to create one. Look at how readily we in the west rushed to convince ourselves in 1990 that Saddam Hussein was the obvious “enemy du jour”, leading to the Gulf War in 1991 and the coalition force’s invasion of Kuwait (Desert storm), and which ultimately led on to the full invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Hussein’s sentencing and execution.

Hussein was the perfect enemy. He had already nationalised the oil and banking sectors in Iraq as well as a slew of other industries (always gets everyone angry), and was known for his brutality against any opposition through his ruthless paramilitary and police organisation, which had a penchant for torture and executions. As well, both US President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had incontrovertible proof that he had been amassing weapons of mass destruction, and in particular nuclear and chemical weapons that he was ready to use against Israel just as a rehearsal for full scale terrorist attacks on the US. Well, I guess that even world leaders can be wrong.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

So, if political leaders need enemies, is the same true of business leaders ?

The IT vendor companies that I worked for during my career tended to have a designated enemy (not just because they were a competitor) on which we not only kept a serious eye, but one we were also encouraged to deride and dislike. At DEC it was Data General (and vice versa), at SAP it was/is Oracle, and at Sun Microsystems it was Microsoft. It was even commonly known at the time that there were regular dinners hosted by Scott McNealy of Sun and Larry Ellison of Oracle, where the main topic of conversation was focussed on how to destroy Microsoft. They should have planned more and eaten less.

Author: amadeusm; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: amadeusm; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Peter Kaminski; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35034359460@N01/3772015/; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Peter Kaminski; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35034359460@N01/3772015/; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

These are fairly obvious business enemies, as the belief is that every piece of business that one loses to a competitor is taking food off the plates of our employees and their families. I have always believed that competition is important, as it takes more than one vendor to create a market, and that for example, SAP was seriously more successful once Oracle came onto the scene as a provider of competitive business application software, which at least gave the marketplace some credibility as well as some choice.

But I also have a belief that every successful leader, no matter how widely loved and admired s/he is, will create their own horde of enemies along the way, even amongst those close to him/her, which is something that comes with having strong beliefs and a strong drive to execute.

It appears to be virtually impossible to do great things and to please everybody at the same time. Great leaders will, by dint of the strength of their beliefs and convictions, create antagonism from those that cannot share these for a number of reasons, and in particular from those that are close to them.

Envy … there will always be those that are jealous of what you have achieved and will therefore go out of their way to try and discredit you. At an early part of my career, I was asked to move from the role of running a high-performing region to take over another region that was struggling, and after I agreed to do so, my predecessor was reassigned to a non-line role. When his old region started performing well, he went out of his way to tell anyone who would listen that while I might have some limited skills and qualities of leadership, things would only work as long as I was in place, and would immediately fall apart once I moved on. It could be one of the reasons that I have an obsession with leaders leaving a lasting legacy (see “Leaders leave legacies” posted January 13, 2014). Turning a failing organisation into a success will not get you thanks from your predecessor, who would rather that you also failed so s/he can justify their own previous poor performance.

Collateral damage … as you start to implement a direction and strategy, it sometimes becomes obvious that there are people in your area of responsibility that will just not be able to make the grade. You owe it to them to do everything that you can possibly do to try to help them succeed, but there are times when you have to accept that this is not going to happen, and you then have to cut them loose. Do not assume that they will immediately be grateful for removing them from a role where they will definitely fail badly, and suggesting that they would be better elsewhere. I once had to remove a country MD who was failing dismally and, although he then went on to build a successful career elsewhere, he still won’t talk to me nearly 20 years later.

Personality clash … not everyone will be won over by your charms and personality, and whilst some may well see you as “the great saviour”, there will be others who will just not be able to accept what you are doing and how you are doing it. You will need to remove some of these that are openly antagonistic and defiant, but you must remember that removing everyone who disagrees with you is not a great strategy, as you must keep people who are prepared to disagree and question things. The ones to get rid of are the politicians who use subterfuge, rather than those that just have a strong opinion. It is just important to remember that you should give people the option “to agree and commit, or to disagree and commit”, as ultimately, after all the discussion is over, there can only be one way forward, and commitment is key.

Overlooked contender(s) … the person who was the runner-up to the role to which you have been appointed is a potential enemy, just based on the fact that they were overlooked, will feel slighted, and can be dangerous based on the fact that they probably still have a following. The reality is that this is an important person to get onside, as for you they may also be a potential successor, and bringing them onside will also bring their followers. US 16th President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) said “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends”.

Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents, The White House; via Wikimedia Commons

Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents, The White House; via Wikimedia Commons

It is also important to remember what was said by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) “You can have no enemies, but be intensely disliked by your friends”.



  1. guptasaket says:

    Really wonderful article!

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