Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why Leaders Fail: Criteria for Evaluating Prospective Organizational Leaders that Likely Will Not Show Up in an Ad, Job Description, Resume, Cover Letter, or Interview Protocol

Martin E. Ford, Peyton R. Smith

The following insights are derived from Motivating Self and Others by Martin Ford and Peyton Smith.

Leadership search and selection processes typically focus on positive experiences and accomplishments and on positive leadership dispositions. And yet, when leaders fail, it is usually because of negative behavior patterns that are associated with specific social, emotional and motivational deficits.*

[* Sometimes things don’t work out because of a toxic environment or person-environment misalignment. This analysis focuses on cases in which problems flow primarily from characteristics and conduct of the leader.]

The positive leadership skills and dispositions that are typically included as formal criteria in an evaluation matrix are rather easy to identify because there are so many organizations and search firms who have tried to define this territory (e.g., in position descriptions and in evaluation systems). For example, in addition to credentials and experience, ads and position descriptions typically highlight themes like collaboration, communication, innovation, strategic thinking, diversity and inclusion, and stewardship. But what about the qualities that are associated with really bad outcomes – the leadership deficits that are likely to create the kind of disaster scenario that everyone fears but that may not be evident until it is too late? These deficits are often difficult to identify (because candidates seek to display their best qualities) and difficult to assess (because candidates who are skilled self-promoters may convincingly reinterpret these qualities as strengths and attribute “negative” behavior patterns and reputational information to external factors).

Recommendation: While search committees and hiring officers naturally focus on finding the “ideal” candidate for leadership roles, their most important obligation is to First, Do No Harm. This means actively seeking to identify “fatal flaws” that could undermine the morale, trust, and commitment of organizational members and the community as a whole. The impact of such flaws can overwhelm any positive qualities that the candidate may possess.

What are the leadership deficits most likely to cause harm to an organization?

  1. Perhaps the most frequent “nasty surprise” that organizations experience when hiring new leaders is finding out that the leader is highly motivated by personal power both as an outcome and as a process for making things happen. This power orientation is likely to be hidden during the self-presentation and interview process, and only visible through very careful reference checking with people who have directly experienced the candidate’s leadership style and tactics over an extended period of time. A leadership style that relies on intimidation, coercion, and gaslighting is a particularly poor fit for organizations that have thrived with consultative leaders, collaborative teams, and shared governance. And yet it is precisely those kinds of organizations that may not be alert to the potential of power-oriented leaders to poison the emotional atmosphere and working conditions of a well-functioning organizational culture.
  2. Another way in which leaders can quickly undermine a well-functioning organization is through an unwillingness to accept criticism, learn from mistakes, or take personal responsibility for negative outcomes. Rather than being open-minded listeners, such leaders immediately go into defensive mode and engage in efforts to protect their reputation, often by blaming others and denying the validity of others’ perceptions. It is hard to imagine how an organization could continue on a positive trajectory with a leader who shuts down open, honest conversation and reflection whenever the topics feel personally threatening. Amplifying the negative impact of this behavior pattern is the natural tendency of these insecure leaders to inhibit progress by causing others to be avoidant and “play it safe.”
  3. Another social/motivational deficit that is often hard to discern from a standard interview process is an underlying “fatal flaw” in which the candidate, despite a façade of interpersonal and verbal competence, fundamentally lacks social purpose. Leaders who are self-absorbed and lack empathy for others’ circumstances can’t help but prioritize personal interests over those of others in the organization, as self-promotion and self-protection are what captures their attention and interest. Conversely, caring deeply about the integrity of the organization and being personally concerned about each of the individuals working in the organization is a hallmark of the leadership pattern that has enabled so many organizations to flourish in highly competitive environments. Social purpose is also the foundation for authentic concern about culture-strengthening equity principles such as inclusion, fair treatment, and the equitable distribution of resources.
  4. Social purpose deficits are often associated with emotional awareness and emotional self-regulation deficits that amplify the destructive impact of leaders who are persistently self-absorbed. However, because of the social and verbal skills that many aspiring leaders possess, it is notoriously difficult to diagnose such deficits within a short time period and within a limited range of circumstances. And yet, failure to identify these deficits can lead to the hiring of a bully, or a narcissist, or someone whose decisions and actions are dominated by a personal agenda rather than a community agenda.

Recommendation: Don’t be fooled by leadership candidates who display “alpha male” qualities that are celebrated in many cultural and media venues as exemplifying effective leadership. When the search process is over and one must live with the newly hired leader, followers innately prefer to work with (and for) leaders who emphasize cooperation and who treat followers with authentic respect (e.g., by listening rather than commanding; and by caring and connecting at a personal level). Indeed, leadership is fundamentally about motivating others, thus making it essential that prospective leaders who are likely to demotivate employees, clients, and external support groups are identified before they are hired. The leaders people want to follow emphasize social purpose goals and use facilitative methods rather than personal or institutional power to motivate followers – for example, by affirming values and expectations related to teamwork, responsibility to others, internal equity, and the specific ways that followers can contribute to the group.

What should search advisors, selection committees, and hiring officers focus on as they look for candidates who may be prone to doing things that will demotivate rather than inspire others?

  1. The leader should have a laser-like focus on helping others (not self-absorbed, not power oriented). Listen for “I, me, my” versus “We, us, our” words. Try to get a sense of whether expressions of humility and community concern are authentic or contrived.
  2. The leader should be authentically motivated to treat followers like persons, not objects.
    Don’t overthink it – how does each candidate make you feel? It is difficult for self-absorbed leaders
    to fake empathy and respect for others or to listen attentively to what you are saying.
  3. The leader should not be preoccupied with demonstrating their personal potency.
    Is there respect for history, culture, and the achievements of others, or is the message something along the lines of “I alone can fix this”?
  4. The leader should convey positivity in words and deeds along with gratitude and appreciation for the contributions of others. What tone does the candidate naturally take when initiating conversations, making suggestions, and sizing up others? Again: how does each candidate make you feel?
Motivating Self and Others by Martin E. Ford, Peyton R. Smith
Motivating Self and Others by Martin E. Ford, Peyton R. Smith

About The Authors

Martin E. Ford

Martin E. Ford is Professor and Senior Associate Dean in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, USA. He received two APA early career awards dur...

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Peyton R. Smith

Peyton R. Smith developed and delivered leadership training worldwide for a decade prior to his retirement and after over 30 years of engineering and sales management, primarily at...

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