A Tale of Poor Execution

Leaders are bad at managing change. Chris Licht, lately of CNN, provides a recent example.

George Bohan
Management Matters
5 min readJun 21, 2023


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-man-touching-his-head-3752834/

I tell my business school students at Kent State University that most corporate leaders are bad…very bad…at managing change. Research results vary but studies show that somewhere north of 70% of all change initiatives fail in one way or another. A great deal has been written as to the causes of these failures. The fact is that managing substantial strategic change is difficult. Just ask Chris Licht, until recently, the CEO of CNN Worldwide.

A Clear Vision Isn’t Sufficient

Mr. Licht got that job in the spring of 2022. Today, he’s out of work. His is an exemplary story of how corporate leaders fail at creating strategic change that works.

Licht had a clear vision as to what he wanted CNN to be. John Kotter tells us that such a vision is an important antecedent to any successful change effort. Kotter also tells us that it’s important that leaders spend a lot of time communicating their vision and building coalitions around it.

Licht didn’t do this. Rather, he tried to implement his vision by force of will. Licht had accepted the position with ambitions to rehabilitate the entire news industry, telling his peers that Trump had broken the mainstream media and that his goal was to do nothing less than “save journalism.” The problem was that Licht’s vision required a substantial culture and strategy change for CNN. It can’t be said that Licht bullied the organization into going along with his vision but he did seem to drag it, kicking and screaming at times, with him. Intense was the word used by the folks at CNN to describe Licht. Licht’s troubles eventually led him to a disastrous decision to sponsor a town hall forum episode with Donald Trump. That plan failed spectacularly and Licht was soon without a job.

“Big vision failures” are all too common among senior leaders. From new pastors to new Fortune 500 CEOs, leaders in new positions too often convince themselves of the rightness, the goodness, the expansive possibilities of their vision. It’s good to have passion for one’s plans but, if that passion translates into poor execution, problems arise. Just ask Chris Licht.

Such leaders convince themselves that their visions, in addition to being better than any others that might exist within the organization, must be implemented with urgency. Sometimes, that’s true, of course but leaders can be guilty of shortcutting important steps to successfully creating change when they miscalculate urgency. These leaders come to believe that success depends on quick implementation. People are fired, others are hired, systems and institutions are shaken up, all with the goal of realizing the vision.

Licht’s vision wasn’t outlandish. It was big, granted, but not particularly revolutionary and certainly not radical. There was an element of “let’s get back to what made us great to begin with” to it. Licht felt that CNN had gone a bit too far down the path already blazed by MSNBC and wanted to instill a vision of what one might think of as “old school” journalism. As Licht himself put it, “There are folks who like rain and other folks who don’t. And we’ll talk with both of them.” His vision might have been a good one ( or not) but poor execution made it impossible to tell.

Every Situation is Different

I teach my students a leadership model that’s applicable here. The model asks leaders to assess four aspects of their circumstances and adjust their leadership style accordingly. First, leaders should assess the complexity of the situation. Second, the leader looks at the urgency of the situation. Third, the amount of information that the leader has as a portion of all the information available should be calculated. Finally, the level of buy-in needed from the rest of the organization should be evaluated. When the complexity is low, urgency is high, the leader has most of the information, and the need for buy-in is lower, the leader should take a more directive approach.

As those four factors change, the leader’s approach needs to change. In particular the leader needs to be more inclusive, more participative, less directive as the circumstances become more complex, less urgent, the leader has less information, and more buy-in from the organization is needed.

As we look at Chris Licht’s circumstances as a new CEO of CNN, we can see that his circumstances were certainly complex, there was a great deal of information he didn’t have, and a lot of buy-in was needed. We could discuss just how urgently Licht needed to act but we could all probably agree that CNN wasn’t in a “do or die” situation. All of which leads to the conclusion that a less directive, more participative approach to implementing his vision was Licht’s best option.

Less Direction, More Conversation

The core of such an approach is conversation. Lots of it. It’s through many conversations that a leader is able to gather the information they need, manage complexity, and acquire buy-in. Whether one is a new pastor, a new supervisor, or a new CEO of a large news organization, that leader’s best approach, his or her best chance to move the vision forward is to hold lots of conversations.

Conversation is easy…everyone knows how to do it. Why, then, is it so difficult for leaders to do? I think that issue of urgency is important here. In particular, leaders imagine their circumstances to be more urgent than they actually are, so they cut right to other actions, however ill-considered or ineffective. Such conversations as they do manage to engage in are more by way of seeking to persuade and convince others of the rightness of their own vision. There are times when urgency is genuinely high but, too often, managers tell themselves that time is short and they don’t have the luxury of “getting everyone to feel good about the needed changes”. This can be a serious mistake that results in egregious, and avoidable, missteps. Just ask Chris Licht.



George Bohan
Management Matters

Born and raised in the South, living in Ohio. Writes about politics and management.