Why do leaders fail?

In 1997 J. Kouzes and B. Posner wrote an excellent book about what employees need in order to follow leaders. The book, The Leadership Challenge, covers the employee perspective. Recently, Right Management (part of ManPowerGroup) conducted a study to get the management point of view.

The way leaders see it, they believe their leadership success depends on the following:

  • Fit with company values and culture 68%
  • Interpersonal skills 66%
  • Motivation to lead 62%
  • Previous experiences 57%
  • Lack of derailers 21%
  • Educational background 11%

Firstly, it’s nice to see leaders are more aligned today than ever before with what works – or at least they know what the ‘right’ answer is. Employees certainly see interpersonal skills as a critical factor for them to follow leaders. Leaders are obviously in a complex position. Leading is a balance between dictating and listening, and that in itself isn’t easy.

What does it take for a leader to keep that balance?

  • Engaging in a leadership simulator: The key isn’t to try to create a recipe for when to listen and when to dictate, it is to get leaders in the habit of constantly choosing when to do what. Leaders who don’t know how to make difficult decisions and provide clear directions can’t lead well, and learning when to direct and when to listen is an art that can be developed quickly with the right practice.
  • Developing culture specific flexibility: The types of relationships and leaderships that are required in different organizations are different. I worked for years with military commanders who could not easily adjust to new, nonmilitary cultures. This was not necessarily because they didn’t think relationships were important, but because the way they went about interacting – the same way that got them respect and appreciation in the past – was considered aggressive in another environment. No one way of interacting is superior, but being able to adjust always is.
  • Rewiring the brain: Developing flexibility and developing a balanced directing-listening skill set often requires people to develop new fundamental abilities. A leader who is used to thinking there is only one right way to solve a problem, first needs to change this basic programing before he or she can gain access to effective leadership. The same goes for leaders who are too kind (they need to develop a better balance between the need to please and the need to keep people on track), leaders who are too controlling (they need to let go of their one-sided decision-making processes and develop effective ways of getting people to follow). It’s often futile to preach for flexibility and development before this type of rewiring is addressed.

We have certainly come a long way in understanding what employees need in order to follow. It seems to me organizations are certainly picking up the gauntlet, and getting to the point that leadership can finally be considered a profession.

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