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5 Reasons Leaders Fail

There's a fine line between successful and failed leadership. These five dynamics will push you right over it.

The very traits that make a strong leader, if taken to their extreme, can set a leader up for failure. What may be viewed a leadership positive, if allowed to run unchecked, can turn into a leadership negative. The result is a very thin line between successful leadership and failed leadership.

Consider what happens when:

Confidence becomes ego. Everyone loves a confident leader. Who isn’t won over by the leader who strides into the room, commands attention, and takes control of the situation? But when a leader has an excess of confidence, it generally means he or she also has a surfeit of ego. Ego changes the conversation so that it becomes all about the leader. Ego is the primary reason leaders fail. 

Teams become groupthink. Teams are great. Teams help leaders get stuff done. But if the team or teams become single-minded in nature, and are not encouraged by the leader to engage in creative thinking, groupthink sets in. It is the leader who suffers for it. With groupthink, possible innovations are lost, and creativity stagnates. 

Vision becomes obsession. All leaders need a vision. They have to have some core idea of what they are all about and what they’d like to achieve, not only personally but also for the organization. However, a determined vision can easily slip into obsession. When this happens, the leader risks alienating his or her team, customers, and business partners.

Delegation becomes chaotic. No leader can do everything, and good leaders delegate. A problem arises when the leader delegates too little, leaving people to flounder without direction, or too much, and expects them to take on too much responsibility without support or interaction from the leader. 

Determination becomes inflexibility. This is a corollary to “vision becomes obsession,” but it speaks to a different level of trouble. A leader knows what has to be done, but if outside forces and events indicate that the leader is taking the wrong path, then he or she has to make corrections and adjustments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a leader has to sacrifice goals or end intent, but it does mean that the leader has to consider different paths to getting there.

As this list shows, leaders fail due to certain social-psychological blinders that inhibit their capacity to work in a context of open and candid teams. Leaders fail because they allow themselves to become narrow, while thinking that they are being broad and inclusive. Rather than being agile and reflective, leaders fail when they are overly focused and listen only to their own intentions.


Last updated: Feb 11, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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