Why do leaders fail? Here are our thoughts on leadership failure and what to do about it.

In my mid-30s, I got sick. I spent 18 months in bed, in pain and exhausted. It took three years before I got an accurate diagnosis: I live with an obscure genetic liver condition. Once diagnosed, I’ve been able to make the right adaptations, take action, and resume my life. Before the diagnosis, I tried tons of different strategies, none of which made the slightest difference. Without the correct diagnosis, I had no way of making progress.

When facing critical challenges, it’s a counterintuitive step to resist an immediate leap into action. The loudest voices around you will be the ones calling for urgent action – but they mistake the real urgency in your situation.

What you need is an urgent diagnosis – triage if you will – that will point the way to effective action; you don’t need panicked, reactive activity.

We’re not suggesting procrastination and delay, of course – the need to act promptly in the face of challenges is real – but we are urging you to take enough time to gain some perspective on your situation; diagnose the root causes of your challenges, and act with focus rather than haste.

There are three common diagnostic traps which you need to avoid. They are all seductive because they offer us false comfort when we are most stressed.

#1 Mistaking context for cause

The first is mistaking context for cause. Changing contexts can precipitate tough challenges, but the underlying reasons for the challenges lie hidden in your organisation’s values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. The diagnostic challenge is to identify which of these need to be adapted in order for you to thrive in your new context.

When changing contexts prove challenging, this is a signal that your organisation has adaptive work to do. Simply blaming your changing context for your challenges is a way of avoiding doing the necessary work of diagnosis. Contexts are not in themselves reasons for failure. Failure stems from not doing the work of diagnosis and adapting successfully to your new context.

#2 Failing to identify and consider the hard interpretations

The second trap is failing to identify and consider the hard interpretations. The hard interpretations always force us to ask ourselves, ‘What’s our piece of the mess? How are we responsible for this?’

Useful, tough diagnosis accurately identifies the work you personally need to do. That leads to necessary action. Pseudo-diagnosis seeks to apportion blame elsewhere – on the misfortunes of context; on the actions of competitors; on some other part of the organisation. This leads to inaction; to a deathly passivity; and to a contracting world of possibility.

#3 Failing to solicit perspectives other than our own

The third trap is failing to solicit perspectives other than our own, or those of our immediate team. The tough truth is that our own view is necessarily limited, and very likely compromised by (conscious or unconscious) self-protection.

You can’t make progress on behalf of other people. You can’t adapt people to meet their challenges, they have to do the hard work of adapting themselves. Leadership catalyses this work.

So it makes sense that an important part of your diagnostic work is to understand the challenge from the perspectives of the people who need to rise to the challenge. You can only mobilise people into action by starting from where they are, not from where you’d like them to be – or from where you assume them to be.

In the face of tough challenges, without an accurate diagnosis, there’s but limited hope of an effective cure. Cru Leader Development exists to equip people for the challenges of leadership.

We support people in their growth as leaders, helping them make progress on challenges, exploit opportunities, and thrive in complex situations. We offer an innovative blend of thoroughly researched, evidence-based philosophy and practice tailored to your specific learning needs.

To discuss how we might be able to support your leadership effectiveness, please contact us or call either of our Founding Directors:

Neill Thew: neill@cruleaderdevelopment.com  or

Trevor Cousins: trevor@cruleaderdevelopment.com

Neill Thew is a Founding Director of Cru Leader Development. He has been trained in Immunity to Change coaching by Prof. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey of Harvard University and in Adaptive Leadership a graduate of the Art and Practice of Leadership Development programme at Harvard University. He has a successful track record in developing leaders and supporting people in making a lasting adaptive change across a range of industries.