Q: Why do some leaders fail?
A: During the past 30 years, working side by side with hundreds of leaders, I’ve had a “front-row seat” observing the practice of leadership. I’ve seen many factors that resulted in failure, including arrogance, incompetence, dishonesty, abusiveness and cowardice. These flaws represent people who can’t manage themselves, but attempt to lead others.
Since most of us have experienced such individuals and understand the negative impact they can have, I’d like to focus on two other significant factors that make or break leadership.
Failure Factor One: Irrelevance
In today’s world of rapid change, staying relevant is one of the greatest challenges of leadership. W. Edwards Deming put it best when he asked, “Are you building carburetors?” If your organization builds carburetors, even if you pursue excellence, your business is doomed: Fuel-injection technology replaced carburetors in automobiles years ago. Similarly, how will industries dependent on fossil fuels stay in the game over the long haul? What do food retailers do to remain relevant to consumers as they battle the mega-discounters in their neighborhoods?
While there are no clear-cut answers, the key rests in a quote by hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, who said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Too often, leaders focus on maintaining the status quo, rather than moving in the direction of change.
Failure Factor Two: Working IN, not Working ON
I believe, outside of character flaws, that working IN is the No. 1 reason leaders fail. Working IN means getting sucked into day-to-day operations, fighting “fires,” resolving customer complaints, trudging through piles of administrative paperwork and handling employee conflicts. Leaders who work IN appear very busy, but don’t get the highest and best return on their time and efforts.
Successful leaders understand the importance of working ON. They rise above their operations and ask, “What’s causing our ‘fires,’ complaints and conflicts, and how do I put them out? How do I improve systems and advance my people?”
Leaders who work ON operate proactively and continually improve. To develop team competence and commitment, they emphasize education and learning. To build better systems, they engage in system improvements to enhance customer joy and minimize process variation. To avoid irrelevance, they study industry trends and innovate to stay current.
When leaders fail, people get hurt in many ways, so it’s imperative that anyone holding the title of leader behave with good character, passionately “skate to where the puck is going to be” and diligently work ON.
President and CEO