Leadership failures

Leadership failures

    Whats Inside?

Hogan and Kaiser (2005) consider leadership to be a reciprocal relationship between leaders and followers where leaders use their social influence to encourage followers to set aside their own goals and work towards achieving organizational goals. A lot of research has been done on good leadership which has made leaders to be perceived as heroic or saviours of organizations under crisis. However, not all leaders are good leaders, there are bad leaders (Slattery, 2009). 


According to Ochulor (2011), bad leadership is a result of the actions of both leaders and followers. For leaders, their failures in leadership are not always about lacking good characteristics, but also about having undesirable characteristics (Hogan and Hogan, 2001). For followers, their actions such as idealizing the leader and accepting anything they say eventually lead to the failure of the leader (Slattery, 2009). Followers can be company boards, peers, or subordinates. Conger (1990) lists leaders strategic vision, their communications, and impression-management skills as causes for leadership failure. The paper also states that the qualities that make a good leader can also result in the failure of a leader. 


Hogan and Hogan (2001) show that research in the 80s and 90s showed that failure was associated with themes that can be grouped into the following:


Problems with interpersonal relationships (being insensitive, arrogant, cold, aloof, overly ambitious)

Failure to meet business objectives (betraying trust, not following through, overly ambitious, poor performance)

Inability to build a team (poor staffing, unable to delegate)

Inability to adapt to a transition

Being reactive rather than proactive

Poor judgment


Years later, these themes are still being considered as some of the causes of leadership failure. Some of the later research shows causes of leadership failures and example scenarios as discussed in the following paragraphs.


Ignorance and poor decision making result in leadership failure (Narlikar, 2020)

Anne Applebaum gives a statement on failure by the World Health Organization 

“…the WHO failed the world in some important ways during the early days of the crisis. Certainly, the organization adhered far too close to the narrative of a Chinese government that initially sought to conceal the nature and spread of the coronavirus. As late as January 14, the organization’s leadership ignored evidence from Taiwan that the novel coronavirus could be transmitted from person to person. … Other mistakes followed: the WHO’s strange insistence that face-masks were not necessary, for example, even as mounting evidence has shown that they can cut the transmission of the virus quite effectively, and the WHO’s decision to wait until March 11 to declare the existence of a pandemic, even though the disease had already spread. The WHO’s determination to compliment China in its public statements, and ignore Chinese mistakes, was equally strange…


Overlooking context ( Gurdjian, 2014)

Context is critical for successful leadership. Brilliant leaders in one category are not always brilliant leaders at everything. A leader of one European services business performed brilliantly when markets were growing quickly but failed when the economy was in decline. He continuously pursued innovation and new thinking— which had work before, but were no longer applicable, until he was finally replaced for underperformance. 


Incompetent leadership (Slattery, 2009)

Incompetent leaders fail to deliver on their work. This was the case for Jill Barad of Mattel. She was out of her depth and it resulted in losses and 10% employee turnover. She did not have the required skills to do her job well.


Lack of intellectual training and discipline (Ochulor, 2011)

Intellectual training and discipline help leaders to gain the required knowledge about being a leader. Leaders’ intellectual incapacity, lack of discipline, and political inexperience have led to incompetence and failures in leadership for Nigerian leaders. 


Arrogance (Silverman et al, 2014)

Johnson et al (2010) define arrogance as behaviour that tends to inflate a person’s sense of superiority by pulling others down. It is related to other concepts such as narcissism and hubris. Joe Cassano, a former leader of American International Group (AIG) has been described as an arrogant leader because of his behaviours such as yelling, cursing, badmouthing others, belittling colleagues, and his low tolerance for opposing viewpoints. This is considered to be one of the reasons that led to the downfall of AIG (Ahrens, 2008)


Looting (Ochulor, 2011)

Looting results in leadership failure. This is the case for many African leaders, and it has resulted in mismanagement of countries’ funds.


Corruption (Ochulor, 2011)

Ordinary people around those in power tend to feel entitled to the benefits that come with power. They expect assistance to access opportunities and funds unfairly. This can start from getting employment, being paid better than others, and so on. Such a problem is caused by both leaders and followers.



Hubris (Falk and Blaylock, 2012)

Hubris is an outrageous arrogance that can lead to false confidence in one’s abilities, entitlement, and blindness to the important factors that made the organization successful at the beginning (Collins, 2009). John Thain was the CEO of Merrill Lynch who spent $1.2 million, during a financial meltdown, on remodelling his office. He was entitled and did not see anything wrong with his actions. Eventually, he was ousted.


Hypocrisy (Falk and Blaylock, 2012)

It results when there is a conflict between the values of a leader and those of the organization. It leads one to profess beliefs and virtues that they do not possess. A former US Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Alan Greenspan knew that propping up stock prices by keeping interest rates low would fuel borrowing, which could lead to a destabilized financial system, even though the Board’s mission contained the phrase, “...maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systematic risk that may arise in financial markets...” (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, 2009). This eventually led to economic problems.




A lot of literature paints a colourful picture of leadership and some leaders and followers easily fall into this trap. Bad leadership exists. Negative characteristics such as arrogance, hypocrisy, and hostility affect judgement, risk propensity, and processing information. It is important to assess oneself as a leader, to identify any of the traits, and work on stopping them as they result in failure. It is also always important to be humble and honest to be a successful leader. Followers should be willing to think independently so that there is no group thinking which could result in failure. 




Conger, J.A., 1990. The dark side of leadership. Organizational Dynamics19(2), pp.44-55.


Falk, C.F. and Blaylock, B.K., 2012. The H Factor: A Behavioral Explanation of Leadership Failures in the 2007-2009 Financial System Meltdown. Journal of Leadership, Accountability & Ethics9(2).


Gurdjian, P., Halbeisen, T. and Lane, K., 2014. Why leadership-development programs fail. McKinsey Quarterly, 1(1), pp.121-126.


Hogan, R. and Hogan, J., 2001. Assessing leadership: A view from the dark side. International Journal of Selection and assessment9(1‐2), pp.40-51.

Narlikar, A., 2020. Rebooting Multilateralism? Lessons Still to be Learnt. Global Policy, Opinion.


Ochulor, C.L., 2011. Failure of leadership in Nigeria. American Journal of Social and Management Sciences2(3), pp.265-271.


Silverman, S.B., Johnson, R.E., McConnell, N. and Carr, A., 2012. Arrogance: A formula for leadership failure. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist50(1), pp.21-28.


Slattery, C., 2009. The dark side of leadership: Troubling times at the top. Retrieved from www. wn-kindergarten. org. nz/_literature_66560/Conference_-_Darkside_of_Le.

Tatenda Emma Matika
This article was written by Tatenda Emma a Guest at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

Related Articles


Sign up now to get updated on latest posts and relevant career opportunities