Why Leaders Fail

Posted Friday, May 31, 2013

Allen Slade

Leaders face tough decisions, with competing priorities, time pressures and poor data. When their decisions blow up, the debris field of failure can hurt their career, their team, their organization and their customers.

Why do leaders fail? Mary Gentile categorizes ethical lapses into three categories:

Failures of Awareness – not knowing what kinds of ethical breaches might occur.

Failures of Analysis – being aware of a sensitive issue but not knowing how to think through the ethical situations.

Failures of Action – being aware of the issue and able to analyze the situation, but not acting according to your values.

Think of a leader who failed you or your organization. Did their failure spring from lack of awareness or faulty ethical analysis? I suspect not. In my experience, most leaders fail at the point of action. They notice the issue, they know what to do, but they don’t act.

As a leader, how can you increase your odds of taking the best action?

As a professor, I would love to say that education in ethics is the answer. Yet, after decades of business ethics classes, our leaders don’t seem any more ethical.

I remember one CEO who told me that while interviewing a recent MBA graduate for a job, he asked the man whether he had taken a course in business ethics. When the interviewee answered yes, the CEO asked him what he had learned. The job candidate explained that he had learned about all the models of ethical analysis – deontology, virtue ethics, consequentialism, and so on – and that whenever he encountered a conflict, he could decide what he wanted to do and then select the model of ethical reasoning that would best support his choice. Needless to say, this was probably not the intended lesson of the class.

Mary Gentile

Ethics classes, whether in college or in businesses, can help with ethical awareness and analysis. However, if we are aware and analytical enough going in, ethics classes won’t help at the point of action. Facing a professor in an air conditioned classroom is not the same as facing a union rep in a hot, noisy plant or arguing with your vice president when your job is on the line.

As a leader, you need to be able to manage energy in yourself and others to face ethical challenges. You must be able to manage your emotions in the midst of a storm. And you must also be able to hold difficult conversations to address ethical issues with others. 

Finally, you need courage. Courage is not lack of fear. Courage is doing the right thing in the face of fear. It helps to grasp the things of this world lightly in order to hold firmly to your convictions.

In my first week at Microsoft, a vice president, my boss and I discussed “what would happen if” we were asked to violate employee confidentiality. I said, if asked to violate confidentiality, I would quit. After a brief pause, I said “No, that’s not true. I won’t quit. I will call our vendor first, tell him to erase all our data, then quit.” The meeting quickly broke up, my boss high-tailed it down the hall and I was left standing outside the VP’s office. I called my wife at home to let her know we might not need to unpack the moving boxes.

The VP apologized the next morning, and I was never asked to compromise confidentiality.

My unplanned outburst cemented the confidentiality of our employees. And, it happened in part because I was willing to let go of my job to hold onto my convictions.Business Lady #117

Bottom line: Ethical failure usually springs from inaction at the point of crisis. As a leader, you can triumph in tough situations if you manage your emotions, master difficult conversations and, most importantly, have the courage to act.

2 comments on “Why Leaders Fail

  1. This is an excellent comment. I certainly believe that it is imperative that those who are leaders be able to stand up and address issues of ethics and their convictions in spite of what it may cost them. I think this is where leaders may or may not fail. This comment “because I was willing to let go of my job to hold onto my convictions” is the essential aspect of separating true leaders from laissez-faire ones. When you can hold onto what you truly believe and actually have the courage to stand up and express it in the face of potential loss, that is true leadership as far as I am concerned.

  2. Pingback: Why Leaders Fail | Brave Leadership | Scoop.it

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