Why Leaders Fail

September 12, 2014

Recently I had a discussion with some friends about some public leadership fails in the news. I could name them, but you likely already know who they are. Our conversation turned to a general topic of leadership and things we’ve observed. What struck us was how these things evolve from little, seemingly insignificant decisions that form the culture out of which unhealthy leadership grows. In other words, nobody wakes up one day and says to himself, “I’m going to strive to be an authoritarian leader who wreaks havoc on the people I serve.” It just doesn’t happen that way. Leaders start with good intentions. They start as “normal” people. So how do leaders fail? I think there are five basic mistakes leaders make:

1) Leaders Fail to Build Healthy Accountability Structures for Themselves Early On

So nobody wakes up one day and says, “I’d like to be a jerk who doesn’t listen to anyone.” Instead, it begins slowly, early on, when leaders fail to intentionally build honest voices into their lives. By “honest voices” I mean friends, mentors, family who are given permission to tell us when we are out of line. We always think this needs to happen when we “make it big” but that’s a mistake. We should do this when nobody knows who we are. And it begins by receiving healthy criticism from people we love instead of adopting a “haters gonna hate” mentality. It’s important to do this early on because once we “make it big” (whatever that means), we’ll be less resistant to criticism. Leaders who surround themselves with sycophants who fawn at their every move–this builds the culture that breeds authoritarian leadership. So, it’s important for us to have one or two people in our organizations, in our circle of friends, in our families who can tell us, at times, “Dude, you were a jerk to that person” or “Hey, I don’t think this is a good move.” David had Nathan. Who is your Nathan? I think we should not only do this intentionally, but organizations should be structured with this kind of accountability. This is why ecclesiology (church governance and structure) matters. This is why organizational structure matters. The “I’m a CEO/King and nobody tells me what to do” model breeds leaders who fail.

2) Leaders Fail to Move Beyond Personal Grudges and Hurts 

I’m a fan of reading biographies, particularly biographies of political leaders. These are the books I bring to the beach (I know, it’s pathetic). In my reading across a wide variety of leaders, I’ve found a singular trait that characterizes leaders who could best be described as “tyrants.” This is the inability to forgive. Look closely at dictators who have ravaged countries and continents. Almost every one of them was operating off a hurt early in their lives that they never got over. I’ve seen this with presidents, CEOS, and pastors. If part of the motivation for assuming leadership is the opportunity to “prove everyone wrong” or “strike back at those who hurt me”, this is a recipe for an authoritarian leader. Leaders who forgive are leaders are able to use their past as a catalyst for serving others and helping them through their hurt and pain. I think of Joseph, who rose to leadership in Egypt and instead of using his power to get vengeance on his betraying brothers, left justice in the hands of God and instead offered forgiveness (Genesis 50:20).

3) Leaders Stop Serving the Mission and Start Serving Themselves

This one is closely related to the first point. Unhealthy leaders begins when organizations allow or foster a kind of “leadership bubble” where the goals of the organization are simply to advance to the leader’s personal interests. This can get complicated, because a good leader will have a reputation and a brand, so to speak, that will bring attention and honor to the organization he serves. But good leaders build a deep and wide organization and are unafraid to let others in the organization get attention if need be. Unhealthy leaders constantly monitor what is being said about them and wake up every day worried more about themselves than about serving the organizations they’ve been entrusted with. Good leaders are humble, confident, winsome in their approach. And they are motivated not by building their own platform but by serving those God has called them to serve.

4) Leaders Stop Growing and Listening

Most people think this is a function of age, that older leaders stop thinking they need to grow and change and learn. But I have not found this to be true. I’ve met young leaders who think they are the experts in everything and I’ve met older leaders who surprise me by their desire to grow. This is more of an ego/pride thing. Success is a difficult thing to handle, more so than failure. And without the patient work of the Holy Spirit sanctifying us we all tend to drift toward lethargy and pride. Good leaders constantly seek out new opportunities, new relationships, new coalitions that will help them grow as a leader and as a person. Bad leaders refuse to listen, grow jealous of other’s expertise, and guard their reputation so strongly that they can’t ever admit they don’t know everything. I’m reminded of the maxim in Scripture that God “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

5) Leaders Think That “This Couldn’t Happen to Me.” 

What strikes me most in our conversations about failed leadership is that almost none of us think it could happen to us. I think this is dangerous. It’s very possible that someone tweeting/blogging/talking about some famous and terrible leadership crisis today could be the subject of a similar crisis in five years. The more we cringe and feign disgust at the examples we keep reading about, the more likely it is that we’ll repeat the same mistakes. This is because the instinct that says, “How could this guy do this to his church. I would never do that” is the very instinct that leads to our downfall. We should all treat others’ mistakes like Paul treated the failures of Israel in the Old Testament. We should “take heed, lest we fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). I’m amazed at the pride we all have when someone falls and falls big, at the celebration of their demise and the virtual chest-beating we do on social media. This shows that we’re just as susceptible to making the same mistakes. Instead, like Paul, we should treat every sad story of leadership failure as a cautionary tale.