Small businesses to the Fortune 100 organizations share this elephant in the room, failed leadership, as they look forward to business growth.  From my own corporate experiences to those working with clients for the last 16 years, failed leadership is usually ignored for a variety of reasons including:

  • Viewed as a soft skill instead of a hard, skill
  • Misdiagnose of symptoms for real problems
  • Fear of being viewed as a “bad” leader

Shifting dynamics

When organizations grow, the internal and external dynamics change. What leadership skills required in the “startup” or “turned on” phase are quite different from the skills needed for business growth within the transitional and transformational phases.

Additionally, there is rarely a separation between self-leadership and leadership. This is a big mistake because if one cannot lead oneself (self-leadership) leading others becomes far more difficult. When organizational leadership development is imposed without knowing each individual has strong self-leadership skills, then this is very much like a house of cards, just waiting to collapse.

The Anatomy of Failed Leadership

At its core, failed leadership is marked by a leader’s inability to fulfil their role effectively, resulting in adverse outcomes. It’s a multifaceted phenomenon, comprising various elements:

  1. Ineffective Communication: The inability to articulate ideas or heed feedback creates barriers to success.
  2. Vision Deficiency: A lack of clear direction leads teams into a quagmire of confusion and inefficiency.
  3. Motivational Failure: Leaders who cannot inspire their teams witness a decline in morale and productivity.
  4. Ethical Erosion: Compromising integrity not only tarnishes reputations but also corrodes the organizational fabric.
  5. Adaptability Aversion: Resistance to change can render an organization obsolete in a rapidly evolving landscape.

The Cultural Underpinnings

Culture is the soil in which the seeds of leadership either flourish or wither. It’s defined by shared values, beliefs, and practices that can either fortify or weaken leadership structures. However, the cultural dimension is often an overlooked factor in the workplace.

In environments where hierarchy overshadows open dialogue, leaders might find themselves insulated from vital feedback. In contrast, cultures fostering innovation can be a fertile ground for dynamic leadership. Yet, companies frequently fail to notice cultural toxins like rigid power dynamics or change resistance, inadvertently nurturing failed leadership.


History and academia offer valuable lessons on failed leadership. The cataclysmic fall of Enron is a testament to this. Under the helm of CEO Jeffrey Skilling, ethical compromises and strategic blunders led to one of the most dramatic corporate collapses. Blockbuster’s demise under CEO John Antioco, marked by an unwillingness to adapt to digital trends, further exemplifies leadership pitfalls.

Scholarly research provides additional layers of understanding. A study in the “Harvard Business Review” highlights relationship-building failures as a key downfall. Echoing this, a “Journal of Management” study underscores the crippling impact of ethical lapses on leadership and organizational culture.

Renowned leadership experts have also weighed in. John C. Maxwell’s assertion, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” captures the gravity of leadership’s role. Peter Drucker’s insight, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” emphasizes the importance of ethical and strategic decision-making.

So the question arises, how do I know if my small business, department or organization has failed leadership?

  • Far too much consensus-driven decision-making (cover your backend mentality)
  • Kick the can mentality
  • Communication problems
  • Unacceptable results
  • Reactive rather than proactive thinking
  • Time management
  • High staff turnover
  • Unmotivated employees
  • Difficulty in motivating employees
  • Poor or inconsistent sales, quality, etc.

Tackling isolated symptoms

When these isolated symptoms are present, many organizational consultants, talent management specialists to even executive coaches will ignore the elephant in the room, failed leadership, and focus on tackling each of these symptoms separately. Then what happens is one issue is solved and another one is worsened. Long-term sustainable solutions do not happen because causation does not mean correlation.

Solving failed leadership

Accepting the organization may have a leadership problem is the first step. The next step is demonstrating that reality to the rest of the organization. One simple exercise is to ask everyone to write down his or her favourite leader and then list three leadership characteristics. Next on a flip chart record the characteristics of those leaders.

Do you believe you will have the same leadership qualities or will the qualities differ?

This leads to the conclusion that competencies for leadership will vary depending on the person and the situation. So possibly, to solve the leadership problems is to begin by employing a results-based model. This change in paradigm works with all the noted symptoms while supporting both organizational alignment and behavioural change. For example, if everyone knows the desired results, then this improves communication as well as other symptoms such as time management to reactive versus proactive thinking.

Of course, until executive management becomes truly forward-thinking and recognizes that failed leadership is the elephant in the room, they will continue to squander their limited resources of time, energy, money, and emotion on quick-fix solutions that are not sustainable in the long term.

Steering Clear of the Leadership Quagmire

Combating failed leadership is a multi-pronged endeavour. Cultivating a culture that values open communication, ethical practices, and adaptability is paramount. Implementing regular leadership training and development can preempt failure.

Instituting feedback mechanisms that empower all organizational levels to voice concerns is equally crucial. This not only aids in early problem detection but also fosters a culture of transparency and accountability.

Charting the Course to Success

In conclusion, failed leadership is a complex, multifaceted issue with profound implications. It encompasses elements ranging from poor communication to ethical failures. The role of culture, though often neglected, is a pivotal factor. Real-life examples, backed by research and expert insights, underline the importance of tackling failed leadership.

Organizations must nurture cultures conducive to effective leadership and remain vigilant against failure-inducing factors. By doing so, they can navigate away from the pitfalls of failed leadership and chart a course towards enduring success.

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Discovering & guiding people to be the best for themselves and their organizations is what ignites my passion. With over 30 plus years in corporate sales and having my own 16 years young executive coaching & talent management consulting practice, I truly believe if we stop setting people up to fail we could go even farther and faster than we have to date. This passion extends to helping young people through the Career & College Success Bootcamp. Calls are always appreciated at 219.759.5601 Chicago, USA Central time.