Five reasons why leaders fail

The big talking points from Professor Nigel Nicholson’s recent Leadership Institute round table with leading figures


Indeed, one might be tempted to wonder if we can just skip the problem altogether and go leaderless. We see this in families, sports clubs, music groups, and even in business. Several companies such as the makers of Gore-Tex have pioneered self-managing teams with fluid sharing of responsibility, and the minimal or episodic involvement of leaders.

But on the other hand, history also seems to tell us that bad leaders are sometimes preferable to no leaders. Look at how the Arab Spring removal of despots too often left a legacy of factional anarchy. Might we have an irrational, biologically-based yearning for people to look up to, almost regardless of their misdeeds and flaws?

These are among the themes that were covered in a round table discussion hosted by the Leadership Institute at London Business School. The exchange, which I had the pleasure of leading, featured male and female leaders from government, industry, sports, finance, services, education and commerce.  I was supported in leading the conversation by my colleague Vyla Rollins, the Executive Director of the Leadership Institute, who is also a Programme Director of Custom Executive Educational Programmes and Executive Coach at LBS.

A starting point for the group was the need to avoid equating leaders with leadership. Leadership evolved in social species as a way of serving the needs of the group, helping it to adapt to the environment by co-ordinating and directing human effort. Among wolves, the alpha helps the pack to work coherently and function. It is the same for us humans.

Leadership has to be adaptive. As the Nicholson Leadership Formula says, effectiveness involves being the right person, at the right time and place, doing the right thing. This means leadership can take myriad forms for a multitude of situations, and leaders fail when their model, insights or relationships are wrong.

The following five types of failure are commonplace:

1. The pathological leader

There is a disturbing tendency for us to elevate narcissists, bullies and psychopaths to lead us. Perhaps they make us feel safe for a while, but ultimately people like Robert Maxwell, Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap and political despots through history leave us a tattered legacy.

2. The inflexible leader

The world does not stand still, and neither can leaders. Business history is littered with the wreckage of firms whose leaders failed to adapt their style and strategy to changing times, such as Kodak or Lehman Brothers.

3. The over-reaching leader

There have been leaders who have tried to bend the world to their will – stretching their vision to breaking point. There have been plenty of these in political history, from Napoleon to Margaret Thatcher.

4. The lopsided leader

It is OK for leaders to have an unbalanced portfolio of skills, but only if they have re-balancing co-leaders and teams. Those who don’t fail to meet critical challenges of the role, such as Fred Goodwin of RBS, who was all operations and no strategy.

5. The unlucky leader

Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favours the prepared mind”, and leaders have to be able to ride their luck. The financial crisis destroyed many firms, but good leaders hedge against extreme circumstances. Yet even good men and women can go to the wall if the sky falls in on their business.

Discussion turned to the issue of leadership, competence and motivation.

These can be conceived as the following simple 2x2 formula:

High competence to lead

Low competence to lead

High motivation to lead

A: Natural

B: Failing

Low motivation to lead

C: Hidden

D: Following


It would nice if the world were just populated by leaders and followers, but we have the uncomfortable reality of people in box B who want to be leaders for all the wrong reasons – status and power being common drivers – and people in box C whom we could really use as leaders, but they just won’t put their heads above the parapet.

Many people in box C are women. The female leaders taking part in the discussion agreed that women are too often demotivated by the games they see being played by male macho aspirants in competitive hierarchies.

The discussion stimulated a spirited debate about what we need more and less of in leadership, and what we can do about it. Some key observations were:

  • We need more flexible leadership models, where the function is more rationally shared among people

  • Organisational structure and culture reform is part of the key to attracting more women into leadership

  • Leadership has to have value propositions at its core. We all suffer when leaders are self-serving rather than oriented to their communities

  • The role of boards and their chairmen is widely misunderstood and needs to be reconstituted around the fitness of the firm

  • The ability to learn is the only way to gain competitive advantage and leaders are central to the process

  • Vision is key – leaders with the ability to see what others can’t and make a dream or idea tangible are needed

  • We are impeded by our primitive desire for perfect, god-like leaders. We need to shape organisational life to expect and deal with imperfections.

Of course, the purpose of gatherings such as ours is to explore what goes wrong in leadership, the root causes and what we can do about it.

Luckily, as with the news, we tend to hear much more about failure than success. But we should not forget that so much goes right in business and society, because of good men and women stepping up and taking responsibility for making sure that the world works and delivers not just value, but values for our benefit.

Professor Nigel Nicholson is the author of The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for seeing, being and doing (Jossey-Bass, 2013)


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Comments (2)

Bomsy 6 years, 10 months and 19 days ago

Leaders succeed until they fail because they stay too long and begin to imagine their indispensability to the organization or society;the intensity increases with the level of narcissistic impulse in the individual.Checks and balances are needed to thwart such tendencies.Peter Drucker argued that good as the innate attribute may be,it is desirable for checks and balances to be embedded in the organizational design to forestall the likelihood of a dictator ruining the organization.There is no art for discerning the mind of man.

Yaqdhan Merzah 7 years, 6 months ago

Great article, Thanks