Donald Trump, paragon of the real estate world, files for
bankruptcy. Richard Nixon, 37th U.S. President, resigns the
presidency over the Watergate scandal. Jennifer Capriati, rising
tennis star, enters a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. Jim
Bakker, renowned televangelist, is convicted of fraud.
In the recent past, we've witnessed the public downfall of leaders
from almost every area of endeavor -- business, politics, religion,
and sports. One day they're on top of the heap, the next, the heap's
on top of them.
Of course, we think that such catastrophic failure could never
happen to us. We've worked hard to achieve our well-deserved
positions of leadership -- and we won't give them up for anything!
The bad news is: the distance between beloved leader and despised
failure is shorter than we think.
Ken Maupin, a practicing psychotherapist and colleague, has built
his practice on working with high-performance personalities,
including leaders in business, religion, and sports. Ken and I have
often discussed why leaders fail. Our discussions have led to the
following "warning signs" of impending failure.
WARNING SIGN #1: A Shift in Focus
This shift can occur in several ways. Often, leaders simply lose
sight of what's important. The laser-like focus that catapulted them
to the top disappears, and they become distracted by the trappings
of leadership, such as wealth and notoriety.
Leaders are usually distinguished by their ability to "think big."
But when their focus shifts, they suddenly start thinking small.
They micro manage, they get caught up in details better left to
others, they become consumed with the trivial and unimportant. And
to make matters worse, this tendency can be exacerbated by an
inclination toward perfectionism.
A more subtle leadership derailer is an obsession with "doing"
rather than "becoming." The good work of leadership is usually a
result of who the leader is. What the leader does then flows
naturally from inner vision and character. It is possible for a
leader to become too action oriented and, in the process, lose touch
with the more important development of self.
What is your primary focus right now? If you can't write it on the
back of your business card, then it's a sure bet that your
leadership is suffering from a lack of clarity. Take the time
necessary to get your focus back on what's important.
Further, would you describe your thinking as expansive or
contractive? Of course, you always should be willing to do whatever
it takes to get the job done, but try never to take on what others
can do as well as you. In short, make sure that your focus is on
leading rather than doing.
WARNING SIGN #2: Poor Communication
A lack of focus and its resulting disorientation typically lead to
poor communication. Followers can't possibly understand a leader's
intent when the leader him- or herself isn't sure what it is! And
when leaders are unclear about their own purpose, they often hide
their confusion and uncertainty in ambiguous communication.
Sometimes, leaders fall into the clairvoyance trap. In other words,
they begin to believe that truly committed followers automatically
sense their goals and know what they want without being told.
Misunderstanding is seen by such managers as a lack of effort (or
commitment) on the listener's part, rather than their own
"Say what you mean, and mean what you say" is timeless advice, but
it must be preceded by knowing what you mean! An underlying clarity
of purpose is the starting point for all effective communication.
It's only when you're absolutely clear about what you want to convey
that the hard work of communicating pays dividends.
WARNING SIGN #3: Risk Aversion
Third, leaders at risk often begin to be driven by a fear of failure
rather than the desire to succeed. Past successes create pressure
for leaders: "Will I be able to sustain outstanding
performance?" "What will I do for an encore?" In fact, the longer a
leader is successful, the higher his or her perceived cost of
When driven by the fear of failure, leaders are unable to take
reasonable risks. They want to do only the tried and proven;
attempts at innovation -- typically a key to their initial success --
diminish and eventually disappear.
Which is more important to you: the attempt or the outcome? Are you
still taking reasonable risks? Prudent leadership never takes
reckless chances that risk the destruction of what has been
achieved, but neither is it paralyzed by fear. Often the dance of
leadership is two steps forward, one step back.
WARNING SIGN #4: Ethics Slip
A leader's credibility is the result of two aspects: what he or she
does (competency) and who he or she is (character). A discrepancy
between these two aspects creates an integrity problem.
The highest principle of leadership is integrity. When integrity
ceases to be a leader's top priority, when a compromise of ethics is
rationalized away as necessary for the "greater good," when
achieving results becomes more important than the means to their
achievement -- that is the moment when a leader steps onto the
slippery slop of failure.
Often such leaders see their followers as pawns, a mere means to an
end, thus confusing manipulation with leadership. These leaders lose
empathy. They cease to be people "perceivers" and become
people "pleasers," using popularity to ease the guilt of lapsed
It is imperative to your leadership that you constantly subject your
life and work to the highest scrutiny. Are there areas of conflict
between what you believe and how you behave? Has compromise crept
into your operational tool kit? One way to find out is to ask the
people you depend on if they ever feel used or taken for granted.
WARNING SIGN #5: Poor Self Management
Tragically, if a leader doesn't take care of him- or herself, no one
else will. Unless a leader is blessed to be surrounded by more-
sensitive-than-normal followers, nobody will pick up on the signs of
fatigue and stress. Leaders are often perceived to be superhuman,
running on unlimited energy.
While leadership is invigorating, it is also tiring. Leaders who
fail to take care of their physical, psychological, emotional, and
spiritual needs are headed for disaster. Think of having a gauge for
each of these four areas of your life -- and check them often! When
a gauge reaches the "empty" point, make time for refreshment and
replenishment. Clear your schedule and take care of yourself -- it's
absolutely vital to your leadership that you continue to grow and
develop, a task that can be accomplished only when your tanks are
WARNING SIGN #6: Lost Love
The last warning sign of impending disaster that leaders need to
heed is a move away from their first love and dream. Paradoxically,
the hard work of leadership should be fulfilling and even fun. But
when leaders lose sight of the dream that compelled them to accept
the responsibility of leadership, they can find themselves working
for causes that mean little to them. They must stick to what they
love, what motivated them at the first, to maintain the fulfillment
To make sure that you stay on the track of following your first
love, frequently ask yourself these three questions: Why did I
initially assume leadership? Have those reasons changed? Do I still
want to lead?
Heed the Signs
The warning signs in life -- from stop lights to prescription
labels -- are there for our good. They protect us from disaster, and
we would be foolish to ignore them. As you consider the six warning
signs of leadership failure, don't be afraid to take an honest look
at yourself. If any of the warnings ring true, take action today!
The good news is: by paying attention to these signs and heeding
their warnings, you can avoid disaster and sustain the kind of
leadership that is healthy and fulfilling both for yourself and your