History isn’t always kind. But there’s a lot to learn in defeat. Here, a compendium of failed power moves through the ages.
Fall of the Western Roman Empire (476)
It was a long process to end 1000+ years of rule, but most historians point to the day Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Roman Empire in the west, was overthrown by the Germanic leader Odoacer, the first Barbarian to rule in Rome. Culprits: the rise of Christianity, a split of the empire by Constantine a century earlier, decreases in agricultural production, pirate attacks, a large trade deficit and increasing inflation.
Lessons learned: Tolerate different viewpoints. Overvaluation can bite you in the ass. Piracy is hard to corral.
A returned-from-exile Napoleon Bonaparte suffers defeat at the armies of an inexperienced Anglo-Prussian coalition. Bad weather meant Bonaparte’s forces got off to a late start, and some of his minions later complained of “vague orders.” Plus, the little guy was a little overconfident: “I tell you Wellington is a bad general, ze English are bad troops, and zis affair is nozing more zan eating breakfast,” said the French commander. To quote ABBA: “Waterloo: couldn't escape if I wanted to...”
Lessons learned: Start on time. Don’t underestimate the weather. Respect your peers.
Battle of Little Bighorn (1876)
A “last stand,” indeed. Past-his-prime commander George Custer and his men (including four family members) were picked off by a coalition of Native American tribes. Badly outnumbered, and leading a tired, inexperienced cavalry, Custer both defied orders and suggestions from his scouts, attacking in broad daylight. Oh, and his second-in-command? Drunk.
Lessons learned: Hire the best. Trust the hard data. Don’t drink on the job.
Guns N' Roses implode (1996)
After recording a terrible cover of “Sympathy for the Devil,” most of the original GNR outfit quit, handing over all power and musical authority to enigmatic singer Axl Rose. Twelve years, $12 million in recording time and a billion lineup changes later (including guys named “Buckethead” and “Bumblefoot”), Rose released the rather underwhelming Chinese Democracy, which sold about 1/10th of their prior records.
Lessons learned: Creative megalomaniacs need checks and balances imposed from above. Stick to a budget. Don’t pin your hopes on a person who wears a fried chicken bucket on his head.
AOL/Time Warner Merger (2000)
A “transformative” merger of two media giants, one old-school and one new. The philosophies of the two companies didn’t click. Neither did users. And a few months later, the stock bubble burst. AOL took a $99 billion write-off.
Lessons learned: Synergy is overrated. Don’t force a friendship. And don’t pin your future on outdated technology (see: dial-up).
Philadelphia Eagles (2013-?)
Chip Kelly, the genius behind the fast-paced Oregon Ducks offense moves to the NFL, trades all of his offensive stars and consolidates front-office power into his stubby little hands. One playoff game in three seasons ensue.
Lessons learned: Hire more than “yes” men. Win in the trenches, not on paper. Expand your playbook.