Why do leaders fail?

Memory Nguwi

The general misconception I see as I do my work and interact with people is that most decision-makers and ordinary people equate leadership to hierarchy. If the job carries the title “manager”, the person must be a good manager. Such assumptions lead to a lot of bad decisions about how to develop and manage people at work.

Please do not assume that because a person has been put into a leadership role, it means they can lead.  There are so many incompetent people in leadership roles across our society.

I hope you could reflect on what is happening at your workplace, religious organisation, political party, and even in your family.

How many people you now know occupy roles that carry leadership responsibility but have failed and continue to fail? Unfortunately, they continue to fail and we tolerate it in some instances because we have a wrong conception of leadership and how it can be developed.

John Maxwell says, “everything rises and falls on leadership”. This is very true in every sphere of life. With good leaders, everything seems so easy and motivating. Without good leadership, everything seems so hopeless and demotivating.  Research has shown that over 50% of employees leave organisations because of how they are managed.  The primary cause of leadership failures is not lack of technical capacity or domain knowledge expertise but personality defects; leadership derailment.

Leadership derailment occurs when individuals seemingly with high potential fail to realise that potential due to personality defects. While this problem affects individuals at all levels in the organisation and generally in life, its negative impact grows as people move into leadership roles. Unfortunately, personality is a permanent disposition, and it rarely changes.   This means that whatever defects are detected, they are unlikely to change regardless of coaching and training. have invested many resources in training with marginal improvements noted, but overall the leaders remain the same and stuck in their only way of doing things.

So how do you detect derailment in a leader? First, such leaders are regarded as very intelligent, and it will be evident from how they present issues.

Sometimes they have excelled academically, and everyone is attracted by how bright they are. What then puzzles people is the “stupid” things they do. Most of these leaders are very cruel and use fear to lead people. They set people against each other as long as it benefits them.

They love to be the centre of attraction in every interaction and love the limelight that comes from being in leadership. They rarely care about how others feel emotionally.  They are very ruthless when their authority is challenged.  They will make you feel they are the ones in charge at every opportunity, and people must recognise that.

The biggest challenge in addressing people who are likely to derail is that they lack self-awareness. They always view themselves as superior to other people and tend to exaggerate their abilities.  The fact that they lack self-awareness or the ability to self-introspect makes it challenging to give them feedback.

They react negatively to feedback and tend to go after those who bring such negative feedback. It is reported that in the US alone, the cost of top executive failures cost the economy $13,8 billion (Stoddard and Wyckoff, 2008).

According to Tomas Chamorro, writing in the Harvard Business Review, it is possible to predict who will emerge as a leader based on their personality. Quoting meta-analysis studies shows that people who are well-adjusted, sociable, ambitious, and curious are more likely to emerge as good leaders.

Here is what is even more staggering from the same studies: 53% of the variability in leadership emergence is explained by the personality factors noted above—the same leaders who are effective show high levels of integrity.

A higher level of cognitive ability is also linked to people who eventually emerge as good leaders (5%).

What is more telling from the findings by Chamorro is that the qualities cited above are all largely hereditary and partly early childhood experiences.

Therefore, the implications are that if you hire or thrust people into leadership roles without these qualities, they are likely to fail.  You can’t address these factors through training.

Therefore you need to screen at entry.   Chomorro, in the same article, estimates that 30% to 60% of leadership qualities are heritable (this is because the qualities that determine leadership success are largely hereditary; personality and intelligence).

These findings imply that you are likely to achieve better leadership coaching results if you coach those with leadership potential. It will be a waste of resources to coach those with personality defects.

Given the above findings, it is imperative for organisations to screen for leadership qualities at entry.

If you decide to develop those already in your organisation, check if they have the leadership potential before you waste your resources investing in leadership training.

Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm. — mnguwi@ipcconsultants.com or websites https://www.thehumancapitalhub.com/ and  www.ipcconsultants.com.