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Lessons in Leadership From Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis

Lessons in Leadership From Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis

Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at TELUS and author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization, shares leadership tools that push the boundaries of organizational change to create workplace cultures that shine. Today, he takes a look at the former co-CEO’s of RIM/BlackBerry, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, and just what went wrong:

There is this board game I played as a child called Stratego that taught me a thing or two about planning, competitive forces and winning.

The premise of Stratego, as Wikipedia tells us is “to find and capture the opponent’s Flag, or to capture so many enemy pieces that the opponent cannot make any further moves. Players cannot see the ranks of one another’s pieces, so disinformation and discovery are important facets to gameplay.”

Each player gets 40 pieces to place and control on a 10×10 board. One of those pieces is the flag, while the others range in order and numbers. A number seven can take a number nine, a Spy can take a number one, and so on.

Oh, and there are bombs too. Those bombs go boom if you hit one.

At first blush we might argue that Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis — former co-CEO’s of RIM / BlackBerry — were excellent Stratego players. They hid their flag well, and knew when to advance into enemy territory and strike either through new innovation or large enterprise contracts. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server system, for example, is second to none when it comes to security and systems management.

Then, over a period of time they got cocky. They left their flag in the open.

It’s not as though they intentionally left their flag nakedly blowing in the wind to be captured at first, but they certainly weren’t playing Stratego like they used to.

On the threat from the iPhone:

“[Apple and the iPhone is] kind of one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers … But in terms of a sort of a sea-change for BlackBerry, I would think that’s overstating it.” – Balsillie, February 2007.

Over time — and as I have written about in Flat Army—they exposed their flag, retreated to their bunker, and served us a lesson in leadership.

From Flat Army:

What was the situation at RIM? It was an organization whose leadership and leadership behaviours were closed and unrepentant. There was no evidence of collaboration (or change in strategy) once the Apple iPhone arrived on the scene. Communication channels seemed to be non-existent between staff and senior management. The situation at RIM was one of ego, bravado and ruthless ignorance. The situation was a giant example of groupthink. To many, RIM seemed to morph from an innovative and flexible organization to one that was rigid, blind, egocentric and hierarchical. The situation at RIM was a lack of perception and many of its leaders were culpable. The situation has become a vortex with close minded behaviour at the root.

Yes, their Stratego game was now in retreat, left only with miners (#8), a single bomb (perhaps the break-up of the company) and the now penetrable and certainly disfigured flag.

“No other technology company other than Apple has successfully transitioned their platform. It’s almost never done, and it’s way harder than you realize. This transition is where tech companies go to die.” Balsillie, April 2011.

You’ve got it right Jim (and Mike) on this one. No longer will RIM (sorry, BlackBerry – almost forgot about the shareholder approved name change) need to worry about playing Stratego with Apple or Google/Samsung. In fact, I’d say given BlackBerry’s recent decision to decide whether to break itself up or sell outright after a relaunch gone sideways, this has become a classic case study on actual leadership gone sideways.

If only Jim and Mike had rethought their Stratego moves, perhaps this could have been avoided.

Are You Happy Now Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis?

I know the folks at Harvard Business School and Richard Ivey School of Business — who salivate at potential case studies like BlackBerry — are no doubt happy about the chance to depict the rise and fall not of another technology company but of leadership ignorantia.

Perhaps not all is lost. After all, if you have a spare $5.3 billion lying around, you too can buy and have access to the 5000+ patents in BlackBerry’s possession, plus their $2.8 billion in cash … and to boot, you get a mobile phone company that seems as relevant as adding glue to a Tinker Toys set. There is always Jeff Bezos though. After all, he did just buy a newspaper.


By Dan Pontefract/September, 2013