Dr Sujaya Banerjee

Dr Sujaya Banerjee is the Chief Talent Officer - Essar Group, Founder of L&OD Roundtable and Women Leadership Forum of Asia (wlfa.in).

Why Leaders Fail?

Dr Sujaya Banerjee

A global survey conducted by Heidrick and Struggles, in association with the University of Southern California covered 124 CEOs and 579 top executives. The Study aimed at identifying key trends contributing to CXO Team dysfunctionalities across the globe. These were the key findings:

– CEOs generally have a rosier view of top team effectiveness than other members of their team.

– Only 6% CHROs feel they have a well-integrated top leadership team.

– 50% of CXOs see their colleagues in the top leadership as competitors.

– Less than 5% top teams regularly review team behaviours and provide feedback as a regular part of team meetings.

Dysfunctional behaviours in top leadership teams appear to be the norm rather than the exception, with vast latitudes of tolerance to accommodate behaviours of brashness, self-centredness, arrogance and exclusion that badly impacts the fabric of collaboration and much needed synergies across functions and individuals. The havoc such unchecked behaviour can cause down the line can only be imagined as colleagues stop communicating and sharing information that is vital, playing one leader against another, work in silos, and forget that the real competition is outside the organisation.

In their seminal book ‘Why CEOs fail’, Dotlich and Peter Cairo mention 11 derailing behaviours for leaders. The five most prominent ones are listed below; and are bound to ring a bell for anyone having dealt with leaders who had the knowledge and expertise to do their jobs, but had their own behaviour in the way of actualising the power of their leadership potential.

– I am right, everybody else is wrong – this attitude immediately turns off people around the leader and alienates him.

– Arrogance – Inability to listen and asserting without listening alienates colleagues and team members. Arrogance and can take away from motivation, discretionary contribution and evade alignment as the leader burns bridges with the very people he needs to execute his vision.

1 web– The next decision comes too late – Inability to read the landscape and make decisions early is a clear derailer. A leader who is over analytical, constantly asking for more information and unable to make a decision is seen as lacking in courage, loses respect from his team members as he struggles to deliver what is the primary expectation from a leader – to use his judgement to arrive at effective decisions.

– Excessive focus on the negatives – The company processes are wrong, people are wrong, expectations are all wrong – creates negative energy and takes away from the enthusiasm of performing as the teams are left at the receiving end of the leaders’ catharsis, and get sucked into a downward spiral of hopelessness.

– He gets the little things right and the big things go wrong – No one enjoys working for a nitpicker who lacks the ability to think or act strategically. Winning the battles and losing the war, wasting team efforts, organisational resources and leaving everyone frustrated with not delivering where it really matters. Such leaders evoke irritation and disrespect as they struggle with challenges of personal leadership.

– From a talent perspective a large part of the leadership crisis experienced by India Inc. is owing to horse trading for talent and succumbing to retention pressures and phantom promotions. We continue being the most promotions obsessed nation in the world; and with the shortage of skilled leadership talent in most sectors, those who have any exposure are given an opportunity to move up for fear of losing them to the external talent market.

Most organisations succumb to moving talent up through the leadership pipelines as if they don’t then the competition will. Many have moved to leadership positions by changing jobs and given rise to ill prepared leaders who lack the maturity to handle leadership positions. Organisations now need to deeply contemplate on whether their leadership positions are indeed handled by real leaders.

Jonathan Marshall of LKY School breaks down leadership into three key skills:

– Task Management

– People Management

– Personal management

Personal management is clearly the cornerstone for the other two. Weaknesses in personal management is responsible for the vast majority of leadership derailment.  He describes six factors in pairs of two along a continuum which are bound to resonate with anyone who has seen leaders fail.

 1. The Desire Continuum:

Both greed and hatred are reasons for the downfall of many leaders in history, politics, and have been the reason for retiring leaders to ‘Corporate Siberia’.

Desire Continuum

2. The Energy Continuum:

Energy Continuum

Burnout, exhaustion, and depression are classical examples of too little energy. Too much energy is equally damaging; the leader who is jumping, restless, and worried drives people around him in a tizzy. The sluggish ones don’t inspire action and eventually demagnetise talent, bringing the curtains down on their own careers.

3. The Resolve Continuum

Resolve ContinuumLeaders without confidence and self worth do not inspire confidence in others. Too much resolve on the other hand can produce inflexibility and overconfidence which cause followers to stop contributing. Dogmatism can be dangerous as leaders become unconsciously wedded to a plan of action and fail to respond to new information. Followers for such leaders become a means to an end forcing followers to feel used and move away.

Leadership and character has been an important area of study, especially since the 2008 financial meltdown. A leader’s character shapes the culture of the organisation and also influences public opinion about the organisations.

Centre for Creative Leadership did an interesting study of the character strengths of leaders where they looked at integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence of top leaders and also middle managers and future leaders.

Integrity is the ability to walk the talk. At the heart of Integrity is being consistent, honest, moral, and trustworthy.

Bravery  is defined as acting with valour by not shirking from threats, challenges, difficulties, pain, and speaking up for what is right even when oppositions exist.

Perspective is the broadest of business perspectives to understand both strengths and weaknesses of competitors and to make decisions that position the organisation for long term success.

Social Intelligence is the awareness of your and others motives and feelings and having the agility to adapt your behaviour to what the situation dictates. Top level executives use social intelligence to build alliances, manage conflict, and to negotiate successfully.

Here’s what the Study reveals

Not surprisingly, a positive relationship existed between direct report ratings of each character strengths and boss/ board member ratings of performance. Therefore the more integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence a leader had, higher was his performance rating.

In the case of middle managers the other character strengths co-related lesser than social intelligence that seemed to be most defining for middle management success.

In conclusion, organisations must ensure stringency for promotions early in the hierarchy to ensure character strengths, and watch for traces early in the assessment process.

‘Who are we moving up in the leadership pipeline?’ is an important question to consider. More importantly, ‘who is permitted to wear our leadership badge?’ is even more important when we hire laterally from the outside. Instances of leadership hiring failure are shockingly high, and organisations’ ought to protect their teams and cultures from becoming vulnerable to unassessed leadership talent.

Accepting mediocrity in leadership positions leads to the ‘Russian Dolls Syndrome’ in terms of talent, quality, and performance which are the first casualties within organisations. Stringent hiring, assessment based promotions, and considering the ‘how’ of performances giving due weight to character strengths early can prevent organisations getting derailed when leaders fail.


The Irony of Integrity – William Gentry, Kristin Cullen, David Altman

Six Factors of Leadership Derailment – Jonathan Marshall

Leave a Reply


Post-Colonial Development Complex in Africa
The Shooting Star: Rajesh Khanna
Indian Field Hockey: From Dhyan to the Lack of It
Back to Top