Best Leadership Stories of 2012

There’s a tradition around the holidays that’s so annoying it’s destined to rank right up there with relatives you can’t stand who never leave and fruitcakes so massive you can orbit planets around them.

I’m talking about the endless stream of rose-colored articles about the year that was. Even worse are all the ridiculously optimistic predictions about the year to come. And don’t even get me started on Barack Obama as Time’s Man of the Year for 2012.

I don’t know about you, but all that feel-good fluff just makes me want to fling my MacBook Air and see if it’ll fly like a Frisbee.

But you know what? Misery loves company. If I’ve got to read all that garbage, I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the same privilege. After all, this is America and I’ve got just as much of a first amendment right to inflict my opinion on you as anyone.

The only difference is I’m no blind optimist and I’m not even the slightest bit interested in sugar-coating the truth behind the top leadership stories of 2012:

Generation Me invades the corner office. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for chief executive egos to get any bigger than oh, say Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s, but now it’s official. Self-proclaimed geek and fashion superstar Marissa Mayer has brought her distinct brand of fabulous narcissism to Yahoo. Did you know she actually had a publicist when she worked at Google? It’s all about me, me, me.

Renewable energy jumps the shark. According to Al “I invented the Internet” Gore, global warming caused Superstorm Sandy and pretty much anything else he can think of to promote his green energy investments that have earned the former veep a reported $100 million over the past decade. Since the solar industry melted down, nobody’s buying electric cars, and the real jobs boom is in oil and gas, Washington’s renewable energy initiative has clearly jumped the shark.

Stop trying to be like Steve Jobs. Just because you wear a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers doesn’t make you Steve Jobs. Executives and entrepreneurs everywhere are using Walter Isaacson’s biography of the iconic Apple cofounder to try to clone his management techniques. Sorry to disappoint everyone, but you can’t “copy and paste” the kind of talent that Jobs had. It just doesn’t work that way.

The Peter Principle is alive and well in Waterloo. First, Research In Motion’s co-founders manage to do a perfect imitation of Thelma and Louise, driving the once-great BlackBerry maker off a cliff. Then Kool-Aid drinking disciple Thorsten Heins gets the CEO nod and, voila, nothing changes. Is it me, or have we seen this movie before when Scott McNealy left Sun in the hands of Jonathan Schwartz?

The buck stops … nowhere. Top executives used to earn their pay by owning the success or failure of their companies no matter what. Maybe they’re learning from politicians who are always pointing fingers at each other and never holding themselves accountable. HP CEO Meg Whitman blamed much of $22 billion in write-offs and restructuring charges on bad acquisitions by former CEOs Mark Hurd and Leo Apotheker. It doesn’t bode well for a company that’s become the laughing stock of Silicon Valley.

Google deletes the word “Focus” from search engine. While I agree that diversification is a good thing, somebody really should tell Google chief Larry Page that trying to do everything isn’t a very smart strategy. Soon you’ll be able to send Maps directions on Gmail and Search the web with Chrome on your Droid phone through your Google Glasses while your Google Car drives itself to work. What’s next, Google Airlines?

Self-important superstars aren’t worth the drama they create. Within a matter of weeks, Apple iOS head Scott Forstall and Microsoft Windows president Steven Sinofsky are shown the exit signs at their respective companies. Besides being brilliant and highly accomplished, both executives were famously divisive and disruptive. They were also direct disciples of their former CEOs, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Hmm.

Wintel is on the ropes. Sure, corporate America still has PCs but so what? Mobile platforms from Apple and Google have forever fragmented the computing world. Microsoft launched a rebranding campaign around Windows 8 in a desperate attempt to change market perception that it’s irrelevant, a relic of a former age. And Paul Otellini threw a wrench into Intel’s well-orchestrated succession process by announcing he’ll be retiring early after failing to make a dent in mobile.

Dysfunctional boards really do screw up companies. The long-running soap opera “As the Yahoo Turns” continues as activist shareholder Dan Loeb discovers that CEO Scott Thompson fudged his resume and gets him and much of Yahoo’s board rebooted. In addition to HP and RIM we’ve got Kodak, Sony, Nokia, Olympus, Best Buy -- a host of big companies in big trouble over all sorts of board and executive scandals and record losses.

Facebook IPO overpromises and under-delivers. In the most overhyped and overpriced IPO in history, Facebook goes public and almost immediately wipes out $40 billion of investor capital. Did it kill the IPO market? Burst the dot-com 2.0 bubble? Shatter investor confidence? Undermine Morgan Stanley’s stellar reputation? Destroy Mark Zuckerberg’s credibility? Damage the Facebook brand? Nah. Apparently, nobody can live without Facebook.

Well, the good news is that 2012 is just about over and we’re all still standing. If nothing else, America’s a resilient nation full of risk-taking entrepreneurs, insightful innovators, smart executives, and courageous business owners. What doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger. But that’s only true if we learn from our mistakes and make smart decisions going forward. So let’s pop the champagne and get on with it.