Leadership failure – why leaders fail: a coaching perspective

There are many reasons for leadership failure in an organisation. In this blogpost Dr Bill Price addresses some of these from a coaching perspective to give readers the confidence to excel in the marketplace.

In our collective experience of over 40 years of business leadership, strategic consulting and coaching we have found that leadership is the dynamic that makes and sometimes, breaks a company’s momentum, pace, focus and success.

Leaders and managers must realise that there are some powerful and very seductive traps into which they can fall. Although success and failure are part of life, leadership failure has cost many their careers.

Leadership is about self-knowledge, respect and responsibility while being a role model to those that follow. Leadership has to take the ownership to address the ‘broken promises’ of team members and re-align them in respectful ways.

In essence, leadership is there to provide the vision and direction for the company’s future. Then leaders need to communicate high levels of integrated meaning to the team and keep them informed at all times of the journey while influencing the team to give its ‘best version’ throughout the process.

At times one gets the feeling that leadership courses just pay attention to doing the tasks and learning the competencies. But it is more than that. Leading is the ability to apply knowledge with integrated insight, wisdom and understanding in different and often demanding contexts.

The reality is that leaders have to give themselves, internally, permission to move to the different levels of competence within the entire process of leadership questions about leadership failure, from its causes, to the effects it has on a business or organistion, skills and talents.

It is like walking up different floor levels. The entrance level contains the very well known and basic management specific tasks that demand the capacity of judgement, personal ownership and focus on productivity and implementation.

As leaders develop and personally give themselves permission to walk up the next flight of stairs we find management of the team, individuals’ tasks and connection to the process of strategy.

On this floor one finds the organisation’s vision and values coming more into play. Competencies such as organisational abilities, delegation and planning are now pivotal to the process of successful people management.

On the next floor, one finds the manager beginning to evolve into a leader where more focus is on ‘doing implementation and facilitation.’

Then on the floor above, one discovers that the leaders develop personal influencing and leveraging skills, woven into people intelligence within interpersonal relationships.

On this level one finds a deeper understanding of a people strategy alongside the company strategy. The floors go all the way up to where ‘expert and prophetic type leadership’ is focused on discovering trends, redefining industries and market segments with amazing impact on business globally.

We have coached the leadership pipeline and have done research with a national group of over 1 000 South African manager-leaders over a period of two years. Leadership is about internal transitions and granting themselves permission to move to the next floor or level. We have also seen how leaders make costly mistakes and fail.

We looked at leadership failure because we are not too sure why leaders fail as this lies under the mystical layers of self-realities; we therefore need to look at some criteria and make discoveries around them.

Recipe for success or failure

The search for the ultimate ‘success recipe’ is offset by the effort to explain why companies fail. In working with leaders of successful companies and occasionally with people ‘making a comeback’ we are struck by the fact that as a person succeeds by design; he or she would fail by design as well.

We have discovered that, both success and failure are processes with distinctive features; they are not single events, but sequences that in hindsight showed characteristics which predict the outcome.

For the sake of clarity: who do we refer to when we refer to ‘leaders?’ They are people whose careers made a corporate contribution, people who carried the challenge of ‘corporate responsibility.’ They set the direction for achieving the business results. Some of them were internal appointees, most were recruited from outside. All of them had a clear success record which made them the winning candidates for the job. They were undoubtedly the ‘smart people.’

Given their credentials, their experience and the people who believed they could be successful, what then happened?

Knowledge includes ‘consequence thinking;’ a starting point to our line of thinking is accepting that companies cannot fail, only people can. The following are presented as ‘events,’ but read it as the name of a process or as a sequence of ‘events.’

Reasons for leadership failure

1. Lack of brutal reality testing

Both Jim Collins in Good to Great and Larry Bossidy in Confronting Reality make reference to leaders shying away from letting the facts speak. It is as if the people who fail run scared of the facts they have to deal with. It is like a train missing the warning that the next light will be red and therefore missing the opportunity to control and run slow in time.

2. Changes not in time or far-reaching enough

This point is really the consequence of the first that, if the facts are misinterpreted, the likelihood is small of doing enough in time. Either the thinking is ‘it is not so bad’ or ‘let’s wait and see.’ The trap in this thinking is not identifying how to recognise the point where waiting is over and action is required and because it remains unspecified the cues and opportunities had been missed.

3. Over-emphasising tomorrow

This is a useful phrase by John Maxwell where a false optimism rules. Either tomorrow will not be as bad or things will (even as strongly as ‘must’) come right. This flows from a conviction about the dynamics of the market, but frequently an over-simplified ‘map’ of how the market works. The resulting ‘selective attention’ to some of the variables leads to a low quality balancing act in the consideration of the drivers of the market.

Over-emphasising tomorrow also happens as a result of over valuation of an existing success recipe. Because the approach has worked before or for others, it is adequate to deal with tomorrow, as how the thinking goes. This is the ‘selective inattention’ that leads to an inadequate contextual intelligence. (This is the type of thinking we as consultants sell, the typical “all you have to do/know/etc. is …” We supply flawed advice with flawed consequences because our own paradigms about change or people who have to change, may be flawed).

Members of the top team play games of ‘silence’ or they have an over-investment in a particular solution and successfully influence the rest to stop asking questions.

Thought viruses

The effect of the above points and others is that the frame of reference applied to the information is inadequate. The leader and his or her team are starting off with a predetermined frame within which the information is evaluated which means that the facts ‘cannot speak their true meaning’ since this meaning is pre-determined.

A second effect is that the questions asked about the information are ‘restrictive;’ not coming from a basis of exploration, but asking for confirmation.

The third effect is ‘sucker’s choice:’ getting trapped in either/or thinking rather than dealing with the ‘apparent’ polarities in a situation. Ideas are not mutually exclusive simply because we think so.

This ‘suckers choice’ (from Kerry Patterson et al’s Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High) or either/or thinking creates polarity in thinking which not only leads to restrictive questions, but also to restrictive consideration of options.

In practical terms this means reduced ‘possibility thinking:’ paying attention to more of the same rather than considering possibilities which are exceptions to the rule.

Limiting Beliefs

For various reasons leaders become convinced that one or more of the following ‘truths’ apply to them or their situation: 

  • Helplessness: cannot initiate and maintain change – change happens. This thinking takes away the initiative and cancels out the useful thought that says “if it is to be, it starts with me.”
  • Hopelessness: “even if I did try, I would make no difference.”
  • Worthlessness: not deserving to be heard, to realise a dream, to make expectations come true.

These limiting beliefs inevitably lead to restrictive questions, even worse, to a ‘sucker’s choice.’

People don’t automatically want to fail. The core question is: what is more important than the truth or success that leads to inadequate balancing acts or interfering with the required contextual intelligence?

As human beings we layer our meanings into levels of importance where the highest level determines our behaviour. We sometimes speak about the lower levels as things “we would like to do/have/get to” are as ‘wishes,’ but when an observer sees our behaviour what really matters is reflected by what we do.

The other aspect we have to pay attention to is how leaders deal with failure afterwards. Leadership is not an easy place to be, neither is it an easy identity to allow to live freely. The balancing acts in leader-ship are amazing learning events.

Coaching leadership through these transitions is an honoured place to be as the coach enjoys the perspectives and personal insights from the vantage point from within the leader’s realities. Coaching leaders during a time of failure is even more exposing and one has the added advantage to watching how they approach the process from within. Leadership failure is nothing, but feedback. 

Bill Price

Dr Bill Price is an international speaker, author and executive coach. Dr Price is based in South Africa where he is well known as a leading Neuroscience practitioner and strategic sage who guides individuals, businesspeople and corporate leaders to achieve their full potential. He also helps empowers people in their personal lives around the themes, of leadership, getting the most out of life and relationships. Consider participating in one of Dr Bill Price's coaching courses or consider attending one of his free 'Synapses'. These neuroscience based webinars are held twice a month over Zoom dealing with a variety of different topics.

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