When Leaders Fail

Lynn Fountain's Profile

Wait a minute....leaders don't fail do they?  Well, of course they do! There are hundreds of examples of leaders who have wandered away from the straight and narrow or who have simply made the wrong choices.  Whether it be politics, corporate America or even sports, leaders are individuals - they will fail at one time or another, but their failure shouldn't define either their future or yours.   A great quote about leadership is from Michael Jordan:

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

                                                                           -Michael Jordan

When a leader fails, it is how they deal with the failure that ultimately makes or breaks their ability to continue to lead.  For the individuals who were impacted by the failure, they must understand that leaders will fail but they should be held accountable.   That may not be reality in today's world, but little by little, as professionals become more experienced and self-confident in their own abilities, they will require that accountability from leaders.  

So why do leaders fail?  Let's review a few concepts and brainstorm what the typical professional can do in a particular circumstance.

Leaders Who Don't Listen 

A strong attribute of leadership is the ability to listen.  Sometimes, those in leadership don't practice the trait. They may allow individuals to vet concerns, but they are focused on their own solution or goal and don't truly consider the opinion of others.  Have you ever been in a meeting where the leader is asking for input?  Someone provides their insight and....wait...wait...here it comes "Yes ...but".  Ugh! That is so deflating as a professional. You feel as if the leader is focused on convincing others of their opinion rather than truly gaining outside opinions.  

So, what do you do when you know a leader isn't listening?  The action may depend on how confident you are in your own opinions.  If you believe the leader isn't listening, you may try a variety of things.  However, be cautious of cardinal sin number one -- calling the leader out in a group setting. Consider asking "Could we speak further about these concepts off-line?  I have some ideas I believe may be worth hearing?"  Of course, the leader may say...."Joe, I want you to share the thoughts with the whole group." Then what?  Share the idea but ensure you re-visit your thoughts with the leader later in a separate more private setting.

Intimidating Leaders

How do you deal with an intimidating leader in a professional setting?  Intimidating  leaders may take this approach to minimize discussion, comment or opinions of others.  They utilize their authority to intimidate those who work for them.  Dealing with an intimidating leader is not easy and may not be something every professional has the fortitude to execute.  

During a recent training session, I asked participants their opinion on what actions could be taken when they encounter an intimidating leader.  Young professionals felt they had no leverage or choice.  They felt if they wanted to keep their job, they needed to keep quiet and deal with the situation.  Experienced professionals were a bit more opinionated.   Some indicated they had worked long enough and if they encountered an intimidating leader, they addressed the issue head on, regardless of the consequences.  

So which approach is right?   For the young professional,  it is understandable for them to feel they can't address the issue directly with the leader.  But that doesn't mean they don't have a choice.  Everyone has a choice, it is how you handle that choice.  If you truly feel intimidated or threatened, you have the right (and obligation) to speak to your supervisor or possibly a human resource representative.  No one in today's business should feel that "bullying" is an appropriate business style.

For the experienced professional who feels they would address the issue head on, they may want to re-think the manner this approach may play out.  It may not be in the group setting but later as a one-on-one.

Deceptive Leaders

This may be the most difficult  leader to deal with. Deceptive leaders have an innate trait which enables them to execute a deception and maintain it consistently over a period of time.  Professionals may not even know they are being deceived.  However, when the deception comes to the surface, it can feel like  a personal attack on integrity. You put your faith in the leader and assume he/she will "do the right thing" only to find out later the leader has undermined your work, authority, job, idea etc. It can be a tough thing to deal with.  What is the answer to this dilemma?

If you believe you are working for a deceptive leader, you must reconcile your own aspirations and morals and determine whether you can uphold your own beliefs and values within the setting you have been placed.  Deception can be a career killer but worst yet, it can impact your own belief in the true value of the type of work you perform.  Don't let the deceptive leader impact your future.  It is up to you to take action.

Remember - no leader is perfect, and it is unreasonable to expect them to be.  However, professionals must recognize this fact and also understand they have the right and obligation to determine the best method to deal with the various leaders they may encounter during their career.

Learn much, much more in Lynn's course Finding the Leader Within on Illumeo.

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Former Chief Audit Executive for two global companies, expert in leadersihp, SOX, COSO, ERM and corporate governance frameworks. Nationally recognized trainer, speaker published author.