I recently conducted a fascinating exercise. I looked at the stories and records of leaders who have failed. While there is some subjectivity to the definition of failure, I think most would agree with my choices. There seems to be near unanimity that the leaders I researched did not fare well in their roles.
Some of my choices were historical figures for whom much has been written. Others were virtual unknowns in the annals of leadership history. Little, if nothing, has been written on them. But I have followed their lives, and they fall into the same patterns of the more publicized leadership failures. Others who know these lesser-known persons agree with my assessment without exception.
What then are the common characteristics of leaders who fail? I have no expectation that my list is exhaustive, but it was amazing to me to see some of these traits repeated several times.
1.They feel they are invincible.
Good leadership requires a level of confidence. But when that confidence moves toward arrogance and a sense of invincibility, there are certainly troubles ahead. These leaders shy away from accountability. They are often involved in moral and marital failures. They always see themselves as the smartest person in the room.
2.They are paralyzed by fear.
On the other extreme, some leaders have almost no confidence. They are unwilling to make decisions because they don't want to be wrong. They are more likely to move decision making to multiple levels of committees and groups so they don't have to be responsible for the decision.
3.They fail to grow.
Some of these leaders were great – in the past. But they fail to change and failed to grow. They are leaders from another era that is no longer relevant. They are analog leaders functioning in a digital world.
4.They are not passionate about their area of leadership.
They often see their work as no more than a paycheck. They will do the minimal work to get the job done so that they can keep their job. These leaders inspire no one, including themselves.
5.They fail to dream.
Leaders who fail often fail to dream. Their world is the immediate task at hand. They do not take time to dream the impossible, nor to see what can be. They don't let others inspire them through books or podcasts or conferences or mentoring. They only deal with today and never dream about tomorrow.
6.They have a sense of entitlement.
Don't you wonder how some leaders got to the place where they are? Perhaps you know the reason. Some of these leaders act as if their position of leadership is totally secure regardless of their performance. These leaders treat others in the organization like means to an end. It's all about them because they feel they deserve special treatment.
7.They have a sense of victimization.
Other leaders fail because they see themselves as victims. Perhaps they were passed over for a promotion some time ago, but they still carry chips on their shoulders today. They cannot function as true leaders because they spend so much of their mental and emotional energy feeling sorry for themselves. Every leader will receive bad news at some point in his or her career. The key test is how that leader will respond.
The opportunity to lead is one of the great gifts given to us. Life is too short to be miserable or ineffective in our roles. I hope leaders today can learn powerful lessons from leaders who have failed.
I know I have.