What the Downfall of Michael Flynn Teaches Business Leaders About Hiring Bad Apples

Michael Flynn
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington. Trump says his former national security adviser is right to ask for immunity in exchange for talking about Russia. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster—AP

As a former chairman and CEO of a $12 billion health care company, I can attest that finding the right talent for the team is one of the biggest challenges for any leader, as well as one of the most important responsibilities. And leaders can’t just rely on their own “gut” or previous experiences in picking the right candidates, as Donald Trump discovered when he appointed Michael Flynn as his national security adviser.

Reports that the then-president-elect ignored warnings from President Barack Obama about naming Flynn as his national security adviser raises red flags with not only the hiring choice itself, but, more importantly, with the leadership values that went into the hiring process.

In naming Flynn to the politically sensitive position despite those warnings—including caution from former acting attorney general Sally Yates—Trump demonstrated a lack of self-reflection and balance, two key leadership values. As a direct consequence, Flynn resigned less than a month into his job after officials discovered that he reportedly lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

For business leaders, the Trump-Flynn drama teaches several lessons. First, there is the obvious: that ignoring red flags about the suitability of a candidate almost always leads to bad hiring decisions. Leaders can avoid these “unpleasant surprises” in hiring by taking a values-based approach when picking people for their teams, just as they do in making any vital decisions.

While Flynn clearly bears the blame for allegedly misrepresenting his contact and apparent ties with the Russians, responsibility also falls squarely on the Trump administration, as it does for any senior leadership team when making high-profile hires. Had President Trump displayed the core leadership value of self-reflection, he would not have dismissed the Obama administration’s comments about Flynn, which had fired him from the Defense Intelligence Agency.

When leaders are self-reflective, they think deeply through the process. They ask themselves if they are receiving thorough information or if they are mostly relying on their own opinion. Without self-reflection, leaders can easily delude themselves and undermine the effectiveness of their decisions.

Leaders also need a balanced perspective by listening to a variety of opinions, particularly those that take a contrary position. In hiring a candidate, for example, if the initial feedback is all positive, leaders purposefully dig a little deeper for more perspectives, knowing that everyone has their drawbacks. Only with a full picture of the pros and cons can a balanced decision be made. While “bad hires” can still happen, self-reflection and balance mitigate the chances of such “unpleasant surprises.”

Important decisions such as hiring key talent require true self-confidence to put ego aside and seek more feedback. In fact, the bigger the egos and the stronger the views involved, the more people need true self-confidence to remind themselves about their own strengths and weaknesses. Without being self-aware, it can be easy to make rash decisions, mistakenly seeing activity as productivity. Or perhaps leaders think they are good judges of character when, in fact, they are actually swayed by others’ appearances or past achievements.

If someone turns out to be wrong for the job, true self-confidence enables leaders to quickly admit the mistake and resolve it for the best of all involved. At the time Flynn resigned in February, however, Trump reportedly was still evaluating whether to keep him in the job. Hanging onto a bad decision is a telltale sign of an oversized ego (even to the point of narcissism) that prevents a leader from admitting to being wrong and taking corrective action.


This leads to a final value: genuine humility, which is all about not forgetting where you came from and respecting others. This value grounds the leader in servant leadership: It’s not about being the most popular, impressing other people, or wielding power; what matters most is the greater good.

Finally, with a values-based approach, leaders actively avoid the trap of hiring only those who are most like them—not just in gender, race, or ethnicity, but also in terms of backgrounds, experiences, and how they think. These self-reflective leaders seek to strengthen their teams with diversity and inclusion to tap a wealth of perspectives and experiences, including what motivates people to be their best. These are the leaders who break the mold of their own biases, conscious and unconscious, and seek the best possible talent by listening to a variety of opinions and heeding the red flags.

As the Trump administration reels from the Flynn fallout, business leaders are well advised to find the best possible talent by listening to a variety of opinions and heeding the red flags.

Harry Kraemer is the former CEO of Baxter and a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He is the author of Becoming the Best: Build a World-Class Organization Through Values-Based Leadership.

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