The Blog

Why Leaders Fail

It's astonishing how much of the vast amount of management and leadership material available - books, videos, conferences, Ted Talks - is intuitive, repetitive, formulaic or trite.

Nobel Prize winner in economics Daniel Kahneman is not a fan of the average business management and leadership book. In his international bestseller of a couple years ago, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," Kahneman writes:

"Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes ... . These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them."

I'm with Kahneman. It's astonishing how much of the vast amount of management and leadership material available -- books, videos, conferences, Ted Talks -- is intuitive, repetitive, formulaic or trite. Entrepreneur Amos Shapira, former CEO of Cellcom, Israel's largest mobile phone provider, says that all the management techniques and insights that have served him as a CEO, "a reasonable person could learn in about two weeks." That also sounds about right to me.

So why is leadership in business and politics (and across other fields) so difficult?

A recent issue of the Economist argues -- in a discussion of three books on the subject -- that too often missing from leadership studies is an appreciation of the role judgment plays. Indeed. That's the tricky part.

Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," is a book about precisely this issue. The 2011 work was a serious effort aimed at helping us to understand biases of intuition, how we make choices, and most important, how we can better identify, understand and prevent errors of judgment.

For a more practical foray into these matters, I recommend a brand new book (forthcoming, publication in August by Johns Hopkins University Press) called "Presidencies Derailed" by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar and E. Grady Bogue. In "Presidencies Derailed" Trachtenberg and co-authors analyse 16 case studies of failed presidencies of American universities. You don't have to be a higher education specialist to appreciate the campus tour.

"Derailed Presidencies" looks to reveal patterns behind failure and offer counsel -- the book's subtitle is "Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It." But it also admiringly strives to avoid oversimplification. Lead author Trachtenberg served for two decades as President of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and certainly will have wrestled with his share of grey areas and tough calls.

The academic enterprise is unique in a number of ways. Nevertheless, when leadership fails in the academic world -- much like in the private sector -- faltering turns frequently on four factors, according to Trachtenberg and co: 1) failure to meet business objectives; 2) problems with communication and interpersonal skills; 3) inability to manage and lead key constituencies; and 4) difficulty adapting. What gets in the way? Things like hubris, stubbornness, inability to listen and unethical behaviour. There's one more factor, note Trachtenberg and colleagues. Sometimes board shortcomings play a role in derailments, with conflict of interest, micromanagement, weak oversight, or internal schisms among trustees being common culprits.

All useful. Pretty straight forward.

At the same time, Trachtenberg and his co-authors talk of the "intricate dance" a university president must do, and tell us that "leadership success is an exercise in splendid complexity;" that no two presidencies are alike; that successful leaders include both the shy and the extrovert, the drinkers and the abstainers, the warm communicators and "some with the coldness of a frozen mackerel." In fact, as the Economist points out, successful leadership is often context-driven. Some of the great political leaders in history have broken all the best practice rules of good management. They've also had a vision, provided inspiration and been able to communicate purpose.

What's a reflective CEO -- or search committee or board -- to think or do?

"Derailments can be befuddling," write the authors. They reprint an open letter by an exceptionally accomplished university president whose manic-obsessive work habits, undiagnosed depression and drinking derailed his career. The ex-president's narrative is subtle, self-critical and thought provoking. "A rush to explanation," wrote the fallen president, "is just as treacherous as a rush to judgment."

Which brings us back to Kahneman. We take comfort in simple and clear messages. The trouble is, if judgment for successful leadership is truly important, then perspective, loads of self-awareness and the capacity to understand and to navigate complexity and ambiguity have to be part of the conversation.