Why leaders fail and what it teaches us about leadership

why leaders fail and what it teaches us about leadership

The Economist recently offered three pieces of advice for anyone considering writing a best-selling leadership book: make good leadership sound unrealistically easy, focus on an uncontested topic and pick a short and catchy title.

In my book, Why Leaders Fail and What It Teaches Us About Leadership, I decided to do none of these things.

Firstly, I chose to bring a dose of realism to our conversation on leadership. We tend to view good leadership in overly simplistic and heroic terms, expecting leaders to possess exceptional charisma and greater ability in navigating organizational challenges than the average person.

The reality, however, is that leadership is a more everyday and significantly more complex endeavour.

Drawing on contemporary scholarship on post-heroic leadership, I argue that good leadership often involves handling mundane and unglamorous tasks, such as practicing humility, enabling followers to succeed and sharing credit, forging partnerships with competing groups, recognizing the limitations of one’s power in the face of flawed organizational cultures, and taking calculated risks with a serious consideration of potential failures.

Or, put differently: good leaders are not necessarily only those larger-than-life individuals that always make the big decisions at the right time.

Secondly, I did not choose to focus the book on an uncontested topic, only of tangential interest to organisations. The book focuses on a controversial and existentially important topic: failure.

Many leadership books tend to focus on what makes a great leader or on the leadership capabilities needed for success. I am, of course, not refuting the usefulness of such approaches. But I have noticed significantly less attention on the pitfalls side of leadership, especially when and why things go wrong.

In my book, I examine how certain leadership traits and behaviours that are typically considered desirable can actually lead to failure. I analyse this phenomenon at five different levels.

  • At the individual level, I look at the dark sides of heroic leaders’ personality traits and their connection with failure in all its dimensions:
  • At the level of leaders’ relationship with their followers, my focus falls on leaders that monopolise influence.
  • When turning to the level of the group, I look at the destructive effects of unchecked in-group bias.
  • Organisationally, the fourth level, I unpack the potentially disastrous effects of a defective culture.
  • Finally, I explore the role of misjudged risk in the context of organizational environments, examining how it relates to heroic leadership and ultimately contributes to failure.

Thirdly, I obviously did not choose a short and snappy title as recommended by The Economist.

I did, however, try to synthesise my findings into a (non-exhaustive) list of lessons for leaders who want to adopt a more post-heroic, and hopefully more realistic, approach. These lessons range from accepting one’s fallibility and cultivating a realistic self-perception to allowing dissent and practising courage.

By not following The Economist’s tongue-in-the-cheek advice, my hope is that Why Leaders Fail and What It Teaches Us About Leadership will offer readers a couple of additional avenues for thinking about the leadership capabilities needed to achieve complex agendas – in organisations and society. As I mention in the book, it is this decidedly unromantic view of good leadership that could motivate both leaders and followers to take up the task of improving their organisations and, ideally, make the world a more humane place.