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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Why Leaders Fail

There are many books on leadership and success.

There are fewer about why leaders fail.

Yet, in every field, leadership failures, terminations, and leadership derailment can seem more the norm than the exception.

Every year we read about university presidents being dismissed, professional team coaches being fired, and it is estimated that one-third of pastoral leaders will experience a forced termination.


Leadership derailment is used to describe leadership failure referring to reasons why people in positions in the organizations have difficulties building teams or achieving results through others.

Hogan and Kaiser in “Exploring the Concept of Leadership Derailment: Defining New Research Agenda,” refer to managerial incompetence as “not having the characteristics needed for success, that is, too little of the right stuff.”

Based an a 32-company study, Douglas A. Ready identified seven key reasons why leaders fail.

While the survey focused on corporate companies, the dynamics are applicable to leaders in most contexts. Here are the seven key factors in leadership failure.


1. Poor stakeholder management: Leadership derailment was attributed to the fact that leaders are unable to manage interdependencies as they advance in their careers. These interdependencies or stakeholders might take the form of other senior executive personnel within the group, team members, suppliers, customers, regulators, the media and a host of other players who need to be influenced so that the leader can shape and implement his/her agenda effectively.


2. Failing to balance diversity and alignment among the top team. This concerns the leader’s inability to manage one’s team or staff effectively. That capacity includes reconciling the tensions between diverse perspectives that create vitality, bringing about the alignment needed to focus on the mission, and articulating and executing strategy.


3. Flawed execution of articulated strategy. This factor is the inability of the leader to deliver value and results according to the articulated mission of the organization.


4. An insufficient mass of followership. Effective leadership is a product of the interactions among the leader, the followers, and the organization’s context. The respondents in the survey identified “critical mass of fellowship” as a factor of leadership failure. If leaders fail to engage their employees, or a pastor the membership, and fail to inspire them to feel central to their organization’s success then they have fundamentally failed to build the foundation for their leadership.


5. A poor capacity for listening. A leader who fails to listen to his followers may experience isolation and fail to acquire the information necessary to make leadership decisions, which will eventually lead to derailment.


6. An inability of reinventing during large-scale change. Failure often results from the leader’s lack of interest or capacity to reinvent one’s leadership competencies when such changes are evidently required during organizational transformation efforts.


7. A poor fit with the company’s core values or culture. Leaders derail when they fail to lead within the bounds of their company’s values and culture. The values of the company serve as the foundation for its core identity and therefore when leaders act outside these guiding principles they are likely to derail. This factor is among the most common causes of pastoral failures.


An analysis of the derailment dynamics shows that a leader’s early strength can become a weakness later in their career.

The same skills and competencies that enable a leader to succeed in their early career may sometimes become liabilities at a later date when the leader progresses to higher positions and cannot develop new skills to handle or match the new job demands.


What about leadership success? Paul B. Thorton in “Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail,” identified four qualities of successful leaders:


To learn more about how to enhance your leadership skills, click here.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia 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.

His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).


Dr. G. & Friends