Volume 4, Issue 3

March 2015

Blue Ridge Conference

Save the Date:

October 14 - 16, 2015

Blue Ridge Conference on Leadership

Black Mountain, NC

Not That Dumb and Not That Smart

Donald R. Keough of Atlanta passed away on Tuesday, February 24, 2015.  Keough is famously known as the person who headed Coca-Cola when they introduced “New Coke” in 1985.  Many of you will be old enough to remember that fiasco.  Coca-Cola had spent significant time and effort in studying consumer preferences and concluded consumers preferred a change in the formula for Coca-Cola to a sweeter tasting beverage.  Despite all the research done, the reaction of consumers was fast and it was furious.  Coca-Cola was inundated with calls and letters calling for a return to the old Coke formula.  Just a short ten weeks after New Coke was introduced, the firm brought back Coke Classic to the joy of consumers.  Many thought that the entire process was a marketing ploy to gain attention for Coca-Cola.  However,  Mr. Keough was quoted as saying “The truth is we are not that dumb and we are not that smart.”  That phrase was included in the news article about his death and Mr. Keough had even suggested that this saying be on his tombstone!

Those words made me think that most of us are probably not nearly as smart as we think we are nor as dumb as some others may think we are.   Mr. Keough’s book on leadership, titled The Ten Commandments for Business Failure, says that one commandment for failure is “assume infallibility.”  He further noted that arrogance and complacency can both serve to ensure failure.   

How many times have we seen leaders in both the business as well as government sector fail due to arrogance or complacency?  It happens all too often.  So what do the words of Donald Keogh mean for all of us as leaders?  First, we should never think we are the smartest person in every room.   Many workers on the shop floor have significant recommendations for improvement, just as many top level managers have.  So as leaders, always listen to those you are leading.  Remember, there are many, many smart people out there and we should learn to listen and benefit from their thoughts and ideas.  As a leader, do not assume someone has nothing to offer in terms of improving your organization’s operations.  Likewise, we are not always as dumb as some may think.    So don’t be afraid to lead either!

Donald Keough may well be remembered for his role in the New Coke failure.  But we all learn from failure.  Mr. Keough did just that and continued to lead Coca-Cola for many additional years.  So remember his words:  “The truth is we are not that dumb and we are not that smart.”

John Jahera


 The contributor to this month's newsletter is John Jahera, Ph.D. 

Board Member, Blue Ridge Conference on Leadership

Bobby Lowder Professor of Finance

School of Business, Auburn University


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