Leadership Gone Wrong: 3 Traits of Failed Leaders

Leaders do not hold positions – they possess moral authority. When moral authority fails, it can, and has, collapsed businesses, cities, governments, and economies.

Three Examples of Leadership Gone Horrifically Wrong

When It Happened

What Happened

Who Was in Charge

Last month U.S. Secret Service Breach Julia Pierson, former US Secret Service Director.
2008 The Ponzi Scheme Market Meltdown Bernard Madoff, former chairman of NASDAQ
2001 ENRON Scandal Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, ENRON Chief Executives

The ENRON sleight created millions of lost jobs and homes. Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme resulted in investors losing billions. And last month’s security breach at the White House, under the watch of Pierson, could have cost President Obama, the First Family, and others their lives — not to mention what might be perceived as incredibly tenuous power of the U.S. government system.

The names, dates, and circumstances are different, but one consistency prevails among all three leadership catastrophes – succumbing to three inappropriate leadership behaviors:

  • Failure to build personal accountability
  • Poor integrity/lack of trust
  • “Couldn’t happen to me” syndrome

Barriers, unforeseen circumstances, and negative influences are guaranteed to surface testing a leader’s ability to lead effectively. These moments of adversity challenge a leader’s skill and character. I am sure none of these leaders woke up one day and said: “I’m going to wreak havoc on those I serve.”  Usually, leaders start with the very best of intentions. So what happens to them? Where do they go wrong?

Failure to build personal accountability
Leaders allow the goals of the organization they serve to advance personal goals. They fail to cultivate a circle of peers and solicit candid feedback about their decisions and actions: “Hey, Dude, I don’t think that is a good idea.” “Wow, you were a real jerk to him.” “Do you think putting her in that role is our best choice?” Leaders go wrong when they fail to nurture candid feedback to install and maintain a personal system of check and balance.

Poor integrity/lack of trust
Bad leaders guard their reputation so strongly, they aren’t willing to own poor decisions, share truth, or pursue the most honorable path. Most of us have learned from a young age that regardless of how bad it hurts to be honest, it’s better to be honest than not. Yet, in the Pierson, Madoff, Lay, and Skilling examples, they purposefully elected to conceal details, hide facts, misrepresent data, and make unsound decisions in a selfish attempt to protect their personal brand and/or achieve their personal goals and desires at the expense of others.

Couldn’t happen to me syndrome
What is possibly the most disturbing is leaders’ “won’t happen to me” posture. In her 30-year secret service tenure, I bet Julia Pierson was listening and reading about the terrible leadership crises led by Madoff, Lay and Skilling feigning disgust. In fact, The New York Times reported her comment about the breach, “I can be pretty stoic about all this …”  Regardless of competence, an arrogant leader will create an organization’s or system’s point of failure – it is just a matter of when.

Leaders who practice these three behaviors are sheer liabilities creating abysmal situations for all residing in their sphere of influence. Worse yet, the culmination of their gross incompetence, and often-corrupt behavior, is typically not uncovered until weeks, months, or even years after their inappropriate conduct has commenced. Therefore, the damage typically has reach and scope far deeper than the initial finding. In my opinion, the only bright side to revelations of such horrific leadership failure is the opportunity for dramatic course correction.

So take a look around your place … with your head fully out of the sand. Are your leaders competent? Oh, your answer is yes? Ok, are your leaders accountable, trustworthy, and humble? If not, I’d recommend that course correction right now while you have the opportunity to choose.

Until next time…

Laci Loew, Vice President and Principal Analyst,
Talent Management Practice, Brandon Hall Group

Laci Loew

A principal talent analyst and consultant with Brandon Hall Group, Laci is expert in all areas of human capital management particularly talent management, leadership, leadership development, and succession management. She has worked in the public and private sectors consulting global and matrix Fortune companies across all industries on integrated talent initiatives. Laci holds a bachelor of science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; earned her MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management; and is currently a PhD candidate in organizational psychology. Laci’s hometown is Chicago and she is based in Las Vegas.

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