7 Reasons Leaders Fail

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Around two-thirds of workers say the most stressful aspect of their jobs is their immediate boss, their line manager (Hogan, 2006). While this will come as no surprise to most, this statistic suggests a massive number of unhappy working relationships. So, does this mean that leadership is failing on a massive scale? Well, not exactly…

A recent article published in American Psychologist beautifully explains why so many people experience their managers as piping hot geysers of stress (Vugt, Hogan & Kaiser, 2008). What emerges is that bosses aren’t inherently bad people (mostly), but that the modern culture of work sets them up to fail. Here are the seven main reasons I’ve picked out from this article for why leaders fail:

1. Strict hierarchies.

For Mark Van Vugt of the University of Kent and colleagues a large part of the problem with many modern organisations is their hierarchies. Leaders are at the top of the chain and are assumed to have all the answers, so they make most of the decisions. In reality knowledge and expertise is spread across people in organisations. But it’s the leaders who must be seen to lead and so followers get frustrated because their superior knowledge and expertise is frequently ignored. This leads to:

2. Poor decision-making.

Leaders often don’t make any better decisions than followers, and frequently make worse ones. This is another consequence of strict hierarchies. Rather than setting up leaders to fail, Van Vugt et al. (2008) argue it’s better to agree that leaders are not always the best people to make the decisions. Spreading the responsibility around, or using more participatory strategies for decision-making is often more effective. But this isn’t the way things generally work, part of the problem is:

3. Huge pay differentials.

Followers often hate their leaders because of the huge difference in their salaries. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for someone whose pay is stratospheric (average CEO pay is 179 times that of average workers). And, because more pay means more status, leaders can quickly come to believe they really deserve the God-like status their pay suggests, resulting in their thinking they have all the answers and that they have the right to treat their employees less than fairly. In the bosses’ defence, though, there are:

4. Impossible standards for leaders.

Perhaps because of the huge pay and incredible demands, followers expect their leaders to be almost superhuman. The leadership literature identifies a whole range of personal qualities thought important for a good leader. These include integrity, persistence, humility, competence, decisiveness and being able to inspire the troops. While a leader may be high on one or two of these, they are unlikely to have the full set. Followers are almost bound to be disappointed by what is, after all, another fallible human who is just trying to:

5. Climb the greasy pole.

If the boss is nice to you, it’s a bonus, because it’s not required for them to get on in the organisation. Leaders are promoted by those higher than them, not those below them – so it’s only necessary for bosses to impress their bosses. This is a recipe for disaffection amongst the followers. Talking of which, forget the psychology of leadership, what do we know about the:

6. Psychology of followership?

One of the best points Van Vugt et al. make is that although it’s leadership that has been most extensively studied and discussed, most of us end up as followers. So really the psychology of followership is more important than leadership. What is it that makes us follow someone else? And, more subversively: do we need leaders? For example, some research shows that when people know what they’re doing, they resent having leadership imposed on them. Generally, though, there’s little known about followership, and how to avoid:

7. Alienation.

As a result of the strict hierarchies, huge pay differentials, poor decision-making, greasy-pole climbing and feeling powerless to change huge bureaucracies, followers naturally develop feelings of alienation, and alienation kills motivation and productivity, along with any hope of job satisfaction.

Talk is cheap

By implication the way to rectify these perceived problems is to do the reverse. Don’t instigate rigid hierarchies, discourage huge pay differentials, democratise decision-making and don’t set impossible standards for leaders. Some organisations are already managing this – presumably those in which followers don’t find their bosses the biggest sources of stress – but most are not.

Of course talk is cheap and recognising the problem is quite different to knowing what to do about it, or having the courage to do it. Anyone wanting to make these types of changes across an organisation would have to be a really great leader – and there are truly few of those around.

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Published: 19 November 2008

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Images: Creative Commons License