Leadership lessons from Kodak

Picture Perfect Failure: Lessons from Kodak

Ah, the “Kodak moments” of life… Many still remember the photography company’s commercials emphasizing the emotional connection people felt as they traveled to pick up those family pictures at the processing store. Most likely there’s tucked away somewhere on your bookshelf a dusty photo album from “way back when” full of hard prints shot on Kodak film.

There was a time when Kodak seemed invincible. This industry giant transformed the photo industry by bringing it out of the traditional studio into every family’s living room. For decades Kodak dominated that space and had no equal. So what happened? What caused their picture perfect failure?

Here are three obvious lessons we can learn from Kodak’s fall. I hope these lessons will cause us to pause and evaluate our own leadership to see whether or not we are vulnerable to making the same mistakes.

#1 – Ignoring the reality

In 1975 Steve Sasson, a Kodak engineer, developed the first digital camera. Since his work was based on filmless technology, he was told that even though it was “cute,” he should keep this breakthrough quiet and under wraps.

In early 1980s Kodak’s head of market intelligence engaged in research showing that, in the next 10 years, the digital photography industry had the potential to replace the film-based business. Despite the clear warning, and despite a generous runway of 10 years, Kodak’s leaders ignored the findings and continued promoting and investing resources in their film-driven business model.

Kodak’s leadership was so passionate about film-based photography that they refused to acknowledge the fact that these major shifts in technology were becoming the driving force in the photo industry.

Their leaders’ inability to accept and embrace that simple reality paved the way for Kodak’s ultimate failure.

#2 – Betting on false assumptions

During Kodak’s heyday, women became the primary picture takers. Moms were empowered to snap photos of their darlings at any time during soccer games, picnics, family outings or birthday parties. Kodak’s marketing strategies and business models were based on the assumption that women were and would continue to be the primary customers of the photo industry.

When digital cameras began coming on the market, the photo industry saw a big shift in who was taking pictures. Because digital cameras were seen as “tech devices” and not just picture-taking devices, men soon became the majority customer base.

Despite those shifts, Kodak clung to the faulty assumption that women would always be the primary customers in the photo industry. In addition, they assumed that people who took pictures would never want to part with hard prints. The market eventually proved both assumptions to be wrong, and eventually Kodak was pushed aside as a non-player in the industry they once dominated.

#3 – Artificial prolonging

Instead of embracing the inevitable shift in who was taking pictures and how, Kodak tried to prolong the life of its core film industry to the very end. Some late attempts were made to incorporate the use of digital technology in tandem with traditional film, but for obvious reasons those attempts failed.

Kodak’s leaders were so vested in the film industry that they simply could not turn the page. They failed to realize that even though more and more people were taking pictures, how they did it and how they treated those images had changed drastically. Instead of artificially prolonging outdated methods, Kodak should have embraced the new paradigm. Unfortunately they never did.

In a certain sense, Kodak’s story reminds me of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day—short-sighted men who were so sold out to the law and traditions that they failed to embrace Jesus, His sacrifice and the new way of grace. Despite earlier prophecies and all the signs that accompanied Jesus’ coming, the Pharisees refused to accept God’s ultimate redemption. Jesus and His ways were just too different, too contrary and too disruptive to what they practiced.

Today it’s easy to look at Kodak or at the Pharisees and point out what went wrong. It’s much harder to look at ourselves and take note of similar mistakes we may be making as we lead others.

By acknowledging our reality, by looking at the assumptions we are making with a critical eye and by being willing to lay to rest outdated or no longer relevant methods, we can help our organizations to grow, develop and flourish, even in ever-changing environments. 

Education / Inspirational

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