Successful leaders typically have a few things in common.
They are inspiring and confident.
They challenge the status quo and
know how to get things done.
And yet, just this past year,
we’ve seen several once-success-ful high-profile leaders flame out
at the top. (Think Uber’s Travis
Kalanick.) The same characteristics that propel executives to the
top can warp over time and contribute to an eventual downfall.
Taken to the extreme, their virtues become vices, says Barry Z.
Posner, co-author of The Leadership Challenge, 6th edition
“The Achilles’ heel of all leaders is believing that they will
never fail, believing that they did
it by themselves, that they’re better than all the little people in
the organization,” says Posner, a
leadership professor and former
dean of the Leavey School of Business
at Santa Clara University. These are all
indications of hubris, or excessive pride,
When executives start to believe that
the rules don’t apply to them, it “leads
to a kind of myopia, where you believe
you’re the organization,” he says.
Over more than three decades of
research, Posner and co-author James
M. Kouzes have pinpointed similarities
in what the best leaders do well. In their
global surveys, most respondents say
they want leaders who are honest, competent, inspiring and forward-looking.
They’re also looking for executives with
credibility, he says. Do the people in
command do what they say they’re going
to do? Do they admit their mistakes?
That employee perspective is impor-
tant to note because the best leaders
bring out three times the amount of
talent, energy and motivation in their
employees as do the worst ones, their
research has found. Effective lead-
ers will model good behavior for their
employees. But if they get too wrapped
up in being the standard bearers, they
may become overly focused on doing
things their own way—to the point
that they reject others’ input and resist
“Oftentimes, the way you handle dis-
appointments will determine your ulti-
mate success more than how you handle
[the day-to-day] successes,” Posner says.
In sports, “it’s easy to figure out how to
behave when you win. It’s not always
easy to figure out how to behave when
you lose, even when you played as hard
as you could. It requires an ability to be
Challenging the existing way
of doing things is key to innova-
tion, but there can be too much of
a good thing. “If you’re coming
up with too many ideas or always
changing things, you don’t provide
people enough safety and security
with which they feel like they can
take a personal risk,” he says.
Good leaders recognize that
even though they make the right
decision based on the information
they have at the time, things can
still sometimes go sideways. “It’s
knowing when to let go and move
on to something else,” he says.
Lolly Daskal, a leadership
coach and author of The Leader-
ship Gap (Portfolio, 2017), helps
executives identify their strengths
and, by doing so, reveals their
potential weaknesses. She finds
that leaders generally fall into
one or more of seven positive
archetypes—each with a polar
opposite. For example, “the navigator”
archetype is pragmatic, decisive and
trusted. However, when under stress, his
arrogant alter ego—“the fixer”—might
emerge. “The fixer” believes his solution
is the only one and micromanages those
“The hero” shows courage in spite
of her fear. If she loses her bravery, she
becomes “the bystander,” who freezes
in the face of misconduct or troubled
If leaders are aware of their strengths
and weaknesses, they can choose to
behave differently. “Great leaders
change the world around them, but first
they must change from within,” Daskal
Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR
Why Leaders Fail
Learn to course-correct before your career founders.
By Dori Meinert