There’s always something breathtaking about leadership failure. We tend to invest so much expectation into our leaders, and we genuinely want to see them succeed in most cases. But sometimes the person we thought was above reproach turns out not to be. Understanding the reasons behind leadership failure can help us know what to look for in a leader and what to avoid. But bear in mind that people change, situations change, and leadership requirements change, and it can be difficult to predict these situations. With that in mind, here are 6 common reasons for leadership failure, and what to do about them.

Why Do Leaders Fail

1. Pathological Personality Traits

Sometimes there is an extremely fine line between confidence and arrogance. Likewise, healthy insecurity can sometimes border on paranoia. Power and narcissism have long been used to construct the leadership version of the Potemkin Village – where on the surface everything looks great, but inside everything is a disaster. To differentiate between a competent, energetic leader and a power-hungry megalomaniac, you have to look carefully at a person’s track record.

2. Insufficient Moral Development

As we grow up and mature emotionally, we go through several stages of moral development, from the simplest (be good: avoid punishment) to the most complex (understanding universal ethical principles). Sometimes people get stuck at an early stage of moral development, perhaps asking of every situation, “What’s in this for me?” In such cases, it is the person in the leadership position who benefits, to the detriment of the people he or she leads.

3. Excessively “Brittle” Approach

Consistency is generally a good thing, but it can be taken too far. Sometimes goals need to be altered, but a leader who is focused on the original goals at all costs risks leadership failure. Ironically, this can go along with fear of failure and excessive avoidance of risk. What can end up happening is the organization can do a remarkably good job at achieving a goal that turns out to be completely wrong or misguided. By contrast, great leaders demonstrate flexibility.

4. Losing Sight of the Important Goals

A great leader doesn’t lose sight of what the real goals are and why they’re important. Say the overarching goal is to open retail locations in underserved areas, and you can have the capital necessary to do this if sales at existing stores increase by 7% this year. It’s easy to focus exclusively on increasing sales and losing sight of why you’re doing it. After all, there’s more than one way to raise capital for expansion goals.


Losing sight of the real goals can lead to micromanagement and all the problems it brings.

5. Poor Communication

It borders on tragedy when an otherwise solid leader fails because of poor communication skills. Rarely do people make it to the top of the leadership pyramid without good communication skills, but what can happen is that a great leader may refuse to move forward in terms of, say, using technology to improve communications. An executive coach (and perhaps a social media coordinator) can often correct the problem of inadequate communication.

6. Serious Illness

Unfortunately, leadership can fail due to a leader physically or mentally falling apart, and this actually is tragic. Burnout, depression, addiction, or any number of physical ailments brought on by continual stress and insufficient stress management skills (or a refusal to take care of oneself) can be responsible for leadership failure. Leaders may operate in a rarefied atmosphere, but they need advisors, coaches, or others they trust to always tell them the truth, even if painful.

Leaders are as human as the rest of us, and just as imperfect. Sometimes, a particular person in a particular leadership position simply doesn’t work out, and it may be due to foreseeable or unforeseeable problems, due to personal failure, or due to a leader’s refusal to move forward and continually strive to improve his or her leadership qualities.

Many leadership failures can be prevented or shut down if a leader is committed to improvement and surrounds himself or herself with people who speak the truth and are willing to bring up uncomfortable truths when necessary. These trusted people may include a best friend, a spouse, a colleague, or an executive coach, and their value cannot be overstated.



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