Why leaders fail to deliver: voices from the front line

Dr. Clinton O. Longnecker


“Everybody wants to talk about great leaders and management success, but it can open your eyes wide to spend some time analyzing why managers fail and don’t deliver desired results.”

A Manufacturing Manager’s ObservationFor the past 20 years, I have been engaged in systematic applied research to identify the attributes of high-performance business leaders around the world. I have found time and time again that high performers are not supermen and superwomen but rather perform the fundamental practices of leadership and management with great precision, discipline, and acumen.


At the same time, I have been engaged in parallel research to explore a question that a lot of people in organizations around the world don’t like to talk about: Why do business leaders fail? And while failure can be described in many different ways, for purposes of this discussion, I define it as “the inability of the leader to deliver the desired outcomes and results that their organization needs from them in a timely, appropriate, and sustainable fashion.”

By creating platforms where business leaders themselves can openly and honestly share their leadership experiences, thinking, and adventures — the good, the bad, and the ugly — I have learned a great deal about why business leaders fail. Key is the fact that, in periods of rapid organizational change, leadership failure is more likely for several important reasons. First, organizational change is typically driven by performance not being where it needs to be, thus increasing pressure on leaders to deliver better results sooner. Second, periods of rapid change expose leadership deficiencies that, if left unchecked, can quickly result in both leader and organizational performance crashing down. Third, an organization’s workforce is in greater need of effective leadership during periods of change and transformation: When leadership is lacking, a host of additional workforce performance problems emerge and create additional problems.

I recently conducted focus groups with over 300 business leaders with an average of over 25 years' work experience from over 50 North American service and manufacturing organizations. As part of the leadership development experience, I asked them: “Based on your experience, why do business leaders fail to deliver desired results in rapidly changing organizations?” I had them answer this question individually and then assigned them to five-person focus groups to analyze their responses. Their instructions were to come to a group consensus, naming the 10 top factors that drive leadership failure. The responses of the 62 focus groups were then content analyzed and interpreted.

The study identified the top 10 factors, plus a bonus factor, that cause leadership failure, which are ranked in the hierarchical order that emerged from our focus groups. Under each of the factors, I've added key practices necessary to prevent failure.

Cause #1: Poor communications talents/practicesTo no one’s surprise, the single most important factor driving leadership failure is a leader’s inability to communicate effectively in 360° fashion. Leaders have to effectively communicate with their customers, suppliers, vendors, superiors, co-workers, and direct reports; and when they don’t, bad things happen. In normal times, any business leader will struggle when they cannot communicate effectively. But in rapidly changing organizations, increased stress, more rapid pace, and multiple workplace changes can all cause significant communication missteps, voids, miscommunications, and breakdowns.  And these missteps frequently occur at a time when people need to be kept informed and have their voices heard more than ever. In rapidly changing workplaces, leaders at all levels must over-communicate with their divisions, departments, work groups, and individuals with the information that affects people’s ability to perform their duties. When they don’t, failure is not far behind.

Key practice #1: To succeed in their efforts to get desired results, leaders must effectively share information, communicate one-on-one and with groups, be willing to listen, and answer questions on an ongoing basis.

Key question #1: As a leader, do you possess excellent communication skills, and are you using them daily?

Cause #2: Emotional “unintelligence” A broad category of leadership failure factors fall into the category of a leader being “emotionally unintelligent”, having personality and ego issues that damaged their ability to connect with others. An emotionally intelligent leader is self-monitoring, demonstrates empathy and social awareness when interacting with others, and realizes that working relationships are critically important to success. An emotionally intelligent leader realizes that change can breed fear, uncertainty, and doubt, which can be greatly reduced when a leader has effective working relationships with the people around them. Rapid change exposes poor working relationships and even accelerates their decline. A leader’s interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are critical to getting results, as these skills can affect trust, communication, motivation, stress, morale, and commitment among people the leader needs.  Failing to foster effective working relationships is a surefire way to impede adapting to change. When a leader lacks people skills and has ego issues, performance and results will suffer.

Key practice #2: All leaders must develop their emotional intelligence and take the time and energy necessary to foster effective working relationships with people to nurture trust and enable them to tap into the informal network of knowledge and resources necessary to create high performance.

Key question #2: Are your working relationship working? If not, what are you going to do about it?

Cause #3: Failing to clarify direction and performance When a leader fails to provide a clear sense of direction to a work group, department, or even division when things are in flux, bad things happen. In periods of transition, people are looking for a clear sense of purpose and picture of where things are headed, and our focus groups made this perfectly evident. This straightforward activity can help alleviate uncertainty and doubt and can give employees purpose and focus. At the individual level, people operating in ambiguous environments want an unambiguous picture of what duties and goals they should be pursuing. They want to know their bosses' performance expectations on an individual basis, and it doesn’t matter what level of the organization leaders are operating in. Our leaders made it very clear that they will fail when they do not specify what results are needed and why, at both the group and individual level.

Key practice #3: For the operation to be successful, managers must provide a clear sense of direction and clarify performance expectations to “reframe” where the work group is going and what individual roles must be performed.

Key question #3: Do the people who report to you know where your work group is headed and what results they need to deliver for success?

Cause #4: Lack of personal integrity, character, and trustworthiness One of the more colourful components of participant discussions included the subject of character and the extent to which people could trust the leader. In periods of change, the credibility of a leader is critical: People will not trust a leader they perceive to lack character and integrity. At the same time, it is critical that a leader demonstrate competency for the job they hold. When character and competency interact, they determine the extent to which a leader is trustworthy to their people. When a leader appears incompetent or found to be lacking moral fibre, employees are slow or unwilling to follow their lead. When trust is lacking, a number of performance and morale problems at both the individual and work-group level can spell failure. In the end, these interconnected factors speak to the issue of a leader’s credibility to the people they are responsible for leading.  And a lack of trustworthiness damages a leader’s ability to influence others to higher levels of performance. If an organization is truly seeking higher levels of performance, the trustworthiness of the leaders cannot be overstated.

Key practice #4: It is imperative that organizations hire and develop leaders who have both the competency and character for each and every leadership position and that they be willing to take real action when this trustworthiness is found wanting.

Key question #4: Do you have the core competencies for the position you currently hold, and is your character impeccable?


Cause #5: Being a big-time de-motivatorOne characteristic of great leaders is the ability to bring out the best in their people and create a workplace climate where people are motivated to do great work. Leaders are destined to fail when they do not know how to or care to motivate their people. Our focus groups called leaders like this “de-motivators”, “energy vampires”, and “leaders who suck the life out of their people”. Bad working relationships, communication breakdowns, unclear performance expectations, lack of feedback, unresolved workplace conflicts, workplace inequities, and unresolved performance barriers are a few signs of de-motivators. A leader is destined to fail when they do not know how to engage their people and implement the well-documented leadership practices that can create a high-performance workplace.

Key practice #5: Effective leaders set goals, clarify performance expectations, engage, create ownership, communicate, empower, provide feedback, link rewards to performance, and have great working relationships where they can employ these key practices.

Key question #5: What specific things do you do to create a workplace that motivate and bring out the best in people.

Cause #6: Operating in the dark and being clueless Failure is not far behind business leaders who do not know what is going on around them. Participants described leaders who were “out of touch”, “operating in the dark”, “ill-informed”, and “living in a vacuum” to describe those who were unfamiliar with the realities of their operations. Effective leaders need to know not only what individual performance goals or metrics to monitor but also activity in human behaviour, which requires having situational awareness of the things going on around them. Access to this accurate reality enables a leader to combine information from these separate measures to develop a better overall understanding of how to predict and pinpoint problems that require their action. Leaders who do not know how they are doing in terms of meeting important objectives or how these measures together produce an overall picture of how they are doing, are setting themselves up for failure.  Monitoring performance against key performance standards and metrics alone is inadequate: Leaders must track and monitor the performance of people so that they can give ongoing feedback and make adjustments.

Key practice #6: Results-oriented leaders constantly know where they stand against key performance standards and metrics and what is going on with the people, programs, and processes that drive performance.

Key question #6: Do you take the time to manage by walking around while at the same time measuring and monitoring key performance variables so you always know where you stand?

Cause #7: Inability to nurture teamwork and cooperation The modern workplace is the “ultimate team sport”, and our focus groups made this point perfectly clear. When a work group at any level of an organization is not led in a fashion to foster teamwork and cooperation, performance problems are not far behind. When a leader does not know how to develop teamwork or at least cooperation among people, getting desired results can become a daunting proposition. A leader described as a “Lone Ranger”, “an army of one”, or “an owner-operator” is not leading by example. A leader must create an environment where people are encouraged to cooperate, coordinate, and communicate to maximize performance. While the word “team” is consistently overused in organizations, the talent for actually developing teamwork and cooperation is without a doubt essential.

Key practice #7: Leaders must take ongoing action to promote teamwork and conduct team-building exercises, which can include cross-training, training in teams, team-based problem solving, and team-oriented communication practices.

Key question #7: What specific activities do you engage in on a regular basis to nurture and foster teamwork and cooperation in your operation?

Cause #8: Poor planning and crisis-driven modus operandiOur participants told us the old adage is true: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. When leaders do not plan effectively, they can find themselves and their people in a constant reactive crisis-driven mode, which damages efficiency, productivity, morale, and employee confidence. Effective planning requires leaders to anticipate future events, needs, and activities and to take proactive steps to prepare their operations to contend with these challenges. Failing to plan erodes the ability to get results and rapidly degrades a leader's credibility with their people. Poor planning practices and reactive behaviour create disruptive crises that damage performance and morale.

Key practice #8: Effective leaders engage in proactive planning activities that give their people the opportunity to prepare for what is coming and maximize performance.

Key question #8: Do you engage in appropriate planning for your operation with your people to put your operation in the best possible position to win?


Cause #9: Failing to coach and develop their peopleThe legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes said, “You win with people,” but apparently far too many business leaders never learned this. Our focus group research revealed that leaders who do not invest in coaching and developing their people end up with sub-optimal results. Successful leaders are almost always credited with being great coaches who make developing the skills and talents of their people a top priority; ineffective leaders are the opposite. In an ever-changing workplace, employees know that their skills and talents need to constantly be refined and upgraded. When a business leader does not make this a top priority, it not only causes employees' skills to stagnate, but also has a detrimental impact on employees by damaging their morale and increasing the likelihood of sub-optimal performance. A leader who is a people developer and coach provides ongoing feedback to ensure all workers are moving in the same direction and giving their best effort.

Key practice #9: Successful leaders make ongoing coaching and people development a critical part of their job impacting both employee talent and motivation.

Key question #9: Have you made coaching and people development a cornerstone of your job as a leader?


Cause #10: Failing to remove performance roadblocks and problems There are always roadblocks on the path to getting results, and when the manager does not remove these barriers in a timely fashion, frustration and failure occur. These problems can take on many forms, including technology problems, lack of resources, poor operating procedures, bad systems, lack of training, and lack of teamwork. Performance roadblocks can also include labour–management conflicts, employee interpersonal spats, and interdepartmental range wars. A leader without proficiency, passion, and prowess in removing performance roadblocks loses twice — first from the damage caused by the problem itself and second by the message they send to their people that they are not serious about getting things done. Both are performance and career derailers.

Key practice #10: It is imperative that leaders use their ongoing awareness of their operation, performance, and people to identify performance barriers and engage in activities to remove these barriers as quickly as possible.

Key question #10: Are there performance barriers and roadblocks in your operation preventing your people from achieving maximum performance? If so, what are you going to do to remove them ASAP?

Bonus cause #11: Failing to develop themselves or the “person–job mismatch”Our final cause of leader failure is fairly obvious but absolutely worth noting. Leaders must develop themselves to meet the changing demands of their very demanding jobs. To not do so exposes a leader’s weaknesses that can lead to both failure and career derailment. When a job changes or they get a promotion, leaders can easily find themselves in over their heads or lacking the requisite skills for success. Thus, it is imperative that every leader practise continuous improvement in their skill development by creating and executing an ongoing development action plan. This plan might include formal training, special assignment, hiring a personal coach, additional formal education, participating in an assessment centre, or simply reading books targeting specific needs. To have skill deficiencies is understandable; to not take proactive action to remove these deficiencies is not.

Key practice #11: Organizations and leaders must engage in leadership development on an ongoing, targeted, and discipline basis to ensure that leaders have the appropriate competencies for success.

Key question #11: Is your current skill set where it needs to be to optimize your performance, and is there anything stopping you from developing world-class talent in this regard?

A call to actionThe findings of our focus groups may not surprise you, but I ask you a simple and yet critical question: Do you see any of these leadership failure factors entrenched in your current leadership activity style? If your answer is no, then take the time to solicit the input of your people to make sure. And if your answer is still no, then thanks for being a great leader.

If your answer is yes, however, thanks for taking a look in the mirror and for being honest with yourself. Here are two more questions to ask yourself to help you take action: “What are the consequences of this particular failure factor to my performance and career?” And “What am I going to do about it?” Your answer to both of these questions is critical, so I wish you well in developing and implementing an action plan to remove any potential threats to your leadership effectiveness. In the end, your ability to address these issues will have a profound impact on your leadership effectiveness, your ability to deliver desired results, and ultimately your career success. Listen, learn, and lead well.

Dr. Clinton O. Longnecker is an award-winning business educator, researcher, author, motivational speaker, business consultant, executive coach, and a Distinguished University Professor and the Director of the Center for Leadership and Organizational Excellence in the College of Business and Innovation, University of Toledo. He specializes in rapid performance improvement and creating high-performance organizations in both his research and consulting. The Economist recently recognized him as one of the top 15 business professors in the world. He has published over 180 journal articles and co-authored the best-selling Getting Results: Five Absolutes for High Performance and Two Minute Drill: Lessons on Rapid Organizational Improvement from America’s Greatest Game. In 2015, he completed an Organizational Behavior DVD series with The Great Courses called Critical Business Skills for Success based on his research. Contact him at [email protected].To find out how Leadership Development can help you, contact the Talent Management Solutions team: Canada: 416 216-1067 [email protected] 


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