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Lessons in Leadership: Why talented leaders fail?

President, Chief Executive Officers, Senior Vice Presidents, Head Coach and Director, just from the sound of these titles you get the impression that these are very talented people.  In most cases, if not all, this is a true statement.  After all, to be elevated to these positions, the person was recommended highly, investigated thoroughly, interviewed exhaustively, and finally—voted on!  Absolutely, just the right fit to lead the organization. The right pedigree, there was a great recommendation. The right background, the investigation would have signaled otherwise. The right smile, the interview validated that and of course, it was a unanimous vote.

So, the question begs to be answered—why do talented leaders fail?

Incredible disaster stories of leadership failures inundate the news. No sector is untouched. The business world, the sports world, and what would a day be like without the latest failure of an elected official to carry out his or her duties as they were entrusted.

Why do so many talented leaders fail? Some would argue there are many reasons. The argument would offer there are simply too many situations beyond the control of even the very talented leader to anticipate, and any of these situations could lead, and in some cases do, lead to failure. Clearly there are far too many to articulate in a brief conversation or a paper short enough to maintain the attention of the reader.

I disagree.

There is only a hand full of reasons the very talented leader fails. I will address three; the most common three.  First, and foremost, the failure to “set the example,” James Kouzes and Barry Posner call it “modeling the way” in their book “The Truth About Leadership,” and the ageless Sun Tzu refers to it as “moral influence,” second, the failure to establish the environment, and  third, the failure to provide a clear and shared vision.


Setting the example almost speaks for itself. It is integrity—having the courage to do what is right because it is right. It is maintaining a personal conduct that is without reproach. It is being viewed in a favorable light, which cements mutual respect and confidence between the subordinates, peers, and superiors.  It is walking the talk.

A dear friend and a very successful lawyer once told me that, in the business world, integrity does not matter. He explained that decisions are rarely an issue of right and wrong. Rather, decisions are an issue of what is allowable under the law. The talented leader maintains a high standard of integrity, doing what is right because it is right. Questionable integrity has become the down fall of many a talented leader. More importantly, in the court of public opinion the organizations led by executives who exhibit a lack of integrity are tainted with the same level of distrust and disgust as the person who leads it. We don’t have to go very far into recent history to see the validity this comment. Today the United States and the world are reeling from the atmosphere of greed established by Wall Street Executives. The failure in leadership, of some of the most talented leaders in the financial world have laid waste to the world’s economy for years to come with the most amazing display of greed in accepting bonus money for their efforts.

Some of the best and brightest of political leadership, very talented leadership, have also failed at walking the talk. A recent example, a very talented and popular political leader from Brooklyn, New York was found sending pornographic pictures of himself to women other than his wife. The politician not only lost the confidence of his constituency, he lost his job, and the congressional seat was lost to the opposing party in a special election. What could be more devastating–the very real possibility of losing his wife and family?

The failure of talented leadership in the area integrity cuts across every industry, in business, in sports, in education, even religious figures. No industry can be excluded. Another closely related area where some of the most talented leaders fail is in what I will refer to as–establishing the environment.

Establish the environment.

The very talented leader establishes an environment that allows for risk taking, pushing the envelope, challenging the process.

The very talented leaders who failed in this area? There can be no better example than the senior leadership of the U.S. Auto industry.  We all know the sad song of the industry. The lack of establishing an environment that embraced taking a risk, pushing the envelope, and challenging the process all but ended the U.S. Auto industry. Oddly enough, executives spanning what must easily be a 30 year period assumed away the competition and fostered an environment that lacked risk taking. The Detroit leadership was happy with evolutionary change rather than embracing a radical pushing of the envelope towards revolutionary change.

One of the greatest examples of encouraging a risk taking environment is the U.S. Armed Forces. The U.S. military is always transforming. Their efforts are centered on finding efficiencies, moving faster, and using technology their advantage. Leaders that do not push the envelope and embrace the risk taking environment are not going to have long careers in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Not surprisingly, the military is thought of by many as very stiff, unimaginative and would be the last to be considered as a model of encouraging risk, and pushing the envelope.

Why such a difference?  The sense of urgency appears to be very different. The military lives with the thought that should it lose a battle, it could lose a war, and in the end lose a nation. Yet many a talented leader in commercial industry seems to move at a pace where a sense of urgency is non-existent.  I am not suggesting the loss of a nation is at risk, but the loss of revenue should carry a similarity on a weighted scale. The very talented leader would instill an environment where status quo is not acceptable; where challenging the process and taking risk is the way. Somewhere in history a great philosopher once said, “he who will not risk will not succeed….”

Failure to provide a clear and shared vision

The very talented leader understands the significance of establishing a clear and shared vision. It is what motivates and rallies the work force. A clear vision is the north seeking arrow of the organization.   A shared vision is inclusive in its development. It was not simply top down driven but includes members of the organization at various levels in the development. By the very nature of the development, the vision has buy-in from employees who are expected to put the vision in action.

The very talented leader that fails at providing a clear and shared vision can, over time expect to gain problems. What problems? Personnel problems followed by organizational problems followed by personal problems—loss of job. Without a clear and shared vision, some of the first to go are talented midlevel managers.  Talent that is not tapped into goes away. The loss of talented management leads to the loss of production or maintaining the status quo. With no vision, talented midlevel leaders have little willingness to take risks. Moreover, expect them to accomplish the task at hand, nothing more. Keep in mind, talented executives are not hired to maintain the status quo. I would believe it is an old Sunday school sermon familiar too many entitled “where there is no vision a people perish.” The paraphrase should read something like this—the Executive that provides no clear and shared vision will perish.

A recent CEO of a Fortune 500 IT search engine company was unceremoniously fired by the board of directors. One of the issues sited was the failure of the CEO to articulate a clear vision.

So, why do very talented leaders fail? 

The failure to set the example, establish the environment, and provide a clear and shared vision is only three of a handful of reasons for the failure of the very talented leader. Keep in mind most, if not all, of the very talented know and understand how to lead. They have been successful throughout their careers and will continue to do so.

That great philosopher and National Basketball Hall of Famer, Charles Barkley in an interview was asked about his conduct on and off the court. It was not what one would think of as stellar. Charles’ reply “I’m not a role model….”

Right or wrong, wanted or not, the leader is the role model the organization will pattern itself after.  The very talented are men and women of the highest integrity. They leverage talent by encouraging an environment of risk taking. They applaud those who are willing to push the envelope. They are clear thinkers. They are self-assured and seek input from a wide range of sources that will provide a vision that will fuel the engine that propels the organization well beyond established goals.

What does this mean for me?

You may be reading this and saying to yourself this is all great, but I am not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the head coach of a university athletic team, and no politician. I don’t need to think in these terms. You may be the CEO of a company you started, not very big but growing. You may be the newly promoted director of sales, a promotion due to your fine sales numbers. You may be an educator that has been promoted through the ranks and find yourself now as the superintendent of a school district.  Why would any of this apply to you?

Why?  Because you are absolutely the right fit for your organization! You have the right pedigree, after all you were recommended for the position or you started the organization. You have the right background you were offered the position only after a thorough investigation of your qualifications was conducted, and if you started the company no one would do any business with you if you did not have the expertise. You have the right smile; the interview validated that.  And of course,the vote was unanimous. Very talented leaders do fail.

What do I do now?

Do three things for sure—first, be the example for the organization you lead; trust me people are watching you! Second, establish and environment that allows your organization to embrace challenging the process and taking calculated risks.  Be revolutionary not evolutionary. Third, provide a clear direction and a shared vision. Leverage your talent to exceed goals.

Bonus!  Everyone likes a bonus…

Since you made it this far, here is a fourth to do—DO REMEMBER LEADING IS ABOUT YOU!  You are the start of all things good or bad in your organization. You are responsible for the accomplishments as well as the failures. There are no born leaders. We all have to learn. Anyone can learn. Everyone can’t lead.  You have to have the desire to lead. Leading starts with the leader, it starts with you.