Why Leaders Fail

Recently Ralph Larsen, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, stated, “Leadership is the biggest single constraint to growth at Johnson & Johnson, and it is the most critical business issue we face.” This statement may be endorsed by many other CEOs, yet solutions to the “biggest single constraint” seem to be in short supply.

For example, consider these findings:

  • Over a 10-year period, at least 50 percent of executives fail in their jobs.
  • In hospital leadership, 60 percent of managers are considered incompetent.
  • In one major aerospace company, 50 percent of the leaders failed.
  • No matter where or when the survey is conducted or what occupation is studied, 60 to 70 percent of employees state that the most stressful aspect of their jobs is their immediate boss.

Why the Dismal Results?

What accounts for these dismal results? Here are four findings:

  1. We assume that people with strong educational background, technical skills, or individual peak performers are our best candidates for leaders. How are leaders typically chosen? Usually those individuals chosen for leadership positions either have an impressive degree (like a Harvard MBA), strong technical skills (like a topnotch engineer), or they are individual peak performers (like super salesmen). But there is no evidence whatsoever that people with these backgrounds make effective leaders.
  2. We allow an outside search firm or an inside search committee to select our leaders. The track record of individuals thus selected are no better.
  3. We aren’t clear on what constitutes a successful leader in our organization. Some clarity is emerging, like the need for conceptual and cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and long-range thinking capabilities,
  4. We rely on our own implicit beliefs or “theories” and preconceived notions about what a successful leader “looks like.” For example, we may think that a leader must be tall, intuitive, agreeable, conscientious, extrovertive, or visionary. But such characteristics as physical height, agreeableness, and having a vision are our selection criteria not qualities that predict success.

What Can Be Done to Improve Leadership Deficiencies

Here are five ways we can improve the odds of success in leadership:

  1. Make the selection criteria and process more rigorous. Rely more on psychological testing and assessment conducted by highly experienced professionals.
  2. Concentrate on “action learning” developmental activities. Concentrate much more on activities that combine learning about group dynamics and leadership with tasks to get real work done (work, like creative thinking and planning, that the company has needed done for some time, but for one reason or another has not been done).
  3. Use multirater feedback processes. These processes enhance the leader’s selfawareness, which correlates with high performance. If the practices on which one receives feedback are related to organizational goals (like culture change), then there can be a win-win payoff.
  4. Coach the leader. Such coaching should be conducted by highly experienced professionals. For multi-rater feedback to pay off for both the individual and the organization, coaching is necessary.
  5. Treat leadership assessment and development as a critical business issue. Ralph Larsen stated, “leadership is the biggest single constraint to growth” and “leadership is our most critical business issue.” I dare say the same could be said of your organization.
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