Why Leaders Fail

Why Leaders Fail

February 11, 2019—Decades of leadership studies have produced well over 50,000 books with ‘leadership’ in their title but almost none on leadership failure. Adrian Furman called this “the elephant in the boardroom.”(1) Furnham noted that “more leaders fail and derail than become successes. Yet the emphasis in the literature seems also to have been on the minority of good or great leaders.” Jenna McGregor captured this paradox when he noted:

We live in a world where organizational failure is endemic – but where frank, comprehensive dissections of those failures are still woefully infrequent; where success is too easily celebrated and failures are too quickly forgotten; where short-term earnings and publicity concerns block us from confronting – much less, learning from – our stumbles and our blunders.(2)

The Center for Creative Leadership has identified five key characteristics that derail leaders, leading to failure:

1. Difficulty in changing or adapting (resistance to change, failure to learn from mistakes, failure to commit to growth and development. This includes an inability to make the transition in functioning after a promotion or a change in position (confusion of role and function)

2. Problems with interpersonal relationship (difficulties in developing productive and healthy working relations with others. This can include being, or appearing, insensitive, arrogant, cool, aloof, and overly ambitious)

3. The failure to build and lead a team (difficulties in selecting and cultivating a team)

4. Failure to meet business or organizational objectives (difficulties in following upon promises, completing jobs, meeting goals)

5. Having too narrow a functional orientation (lacks depth to manage outside of one’s current roles).(3)

Leaders do well to learn what makes leaders successful, and to cultivate those abilities, skills, and orientation. But they will also do well to understand why leaders fail, for often those are blind spots. Many of those blind spots have less to do with managerial competencies and more to do with personal maturity, self awareness, and character. Sometimes, when it comes to leadership, there’s merely a fine line separating success and failure.

(1) Furnham, A. (2010a). The elephant in the boardroom: The cause of leadership derailment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
(2) McGregor, J. (2005). Gospels of failures. Fast Company Magazine, 91, 1.
(3) Center for Creative Leadership. See also, Leslie, J. B., & Van Velsor, E. (1996). A look at derailment today: North America and Europe. Greensboro, NC: Centre for Creative Leadership. 1996.
(4) For a great survey on leadership derailment, see Benjamin James Inyang, “Exploring the Concept of Leadership Derailment: Defining New Research Agenda” International Journal of Business and Management; Vol. 8, No. 16; 2013.

Want to learn more about leadership success and failure? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. Learn More about Leadership in Ministry workshops.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

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