Project Management Articles

The Key Causes of Failure in Leadership

by Di Ellis

In my previous article I reviewed Napoleon Hill's list of the 11 attributes that he believed most contributed to the success or failure of a leader, gleaned during his 20 years of interviewing the most successful men and women in America for his book "Think and Grow Rich".

These attributes are:

  1. Self confidence, be knowledgeable about your work
  2. Self control, remain calm under pressure
  3. Sense of justice, fairness & respect for others
  4. Decisive and stand by decisions
  5. Organization & planning skills
  6. Strong work ethic
  7. Neatness & hygiene
  8. Empathy
  9. Mastery of details
  10. True accountability in deed as well as word
  11. The ability to achieve through others

In this book, Hill also discusses the 10 major causes of failure in leadership. These are:

The first cause of failure is the inability to organize details. According to Hill "efficient leadership calls for (the) ability to organize and to master details. No genuine leader is ever too busy to do anything which may be required of him in his capacity as leader. When a man, whether he is a leader or follower, admits that he is too busy to change his plans, or to give attention to any emergency, he admits his inefficiency. The successful leader must be the master of all details connected with his position. That means, of course, that he must acquire the habit of relegating details to capable lieutenants". This failure relates to two key skills required by the successful leader or Project Manager – good organization skills, and the ability to delegate effectively. Too many managers create a project plan at the start of the project, and then do no more than tick it off, as if the project plan can manage the project. A good leader or manager is across the details of the plan, and manages it effectively.

Even more disheartening is the manager who abdicates responsibility rather than delegating responsibility. What's the difference you might ask? When a task is delegated to someone, consideration is given to the person's skills and ability to do the task, the amount of supervision required, and their capacity to do the task. The manager keeps track of the task, and assists where necessary. When a task is abdicated, it is farmed off to the nearest person without regards to their capacity, skills and knowledge (and therefore ability to do the job) and with no follow up, save for blaming the poor soul when the task invariably fails, as it must.

The second cause of failure according to Hill is the "unwillingness to render humble service. Truly great leaders are willing, when occasion demands, to perform any sort of labour which they would ask another to perform ".  This is the corollary of success attribute number 6 – strong work ethic. No manager can be truly successful if they ask more of others than they are willing to do themselves, or if they consistently delegate the most odious tasks to more junior staff.

The third cause of failure is an "expectation of pay for what they know instead of what they do with that which they know. The world does not pay men for that which they know. It pays them for what they do, or induce others to do". This one brought a smile to my face, for I have met many managers and so-called leaders who expect remuneration and respect because they have been in a job for so many years, or they have an MBA or they know influential people. It's not what you know or who you know – it's what you actually do that counts!

The fourth cause of failure is "fear of competition from followers". Hill goes on to state that "the leader who fears that one of his followers may take his position is practically sure to realize that fear sooner or later". No leader can lead who is continually looking back over his or her shoulder to see who is gaining on them. Great leaders and managers encourage and nurture good people and enjoy working with them.

Someone once told me that you should never be indispensable – as a manager you should always make sure that one of your direct reports is capable and able of taking over from you at a moment's notice. This means that you need to nurture them, train and mentor them, and trust them. This benefits not only them, but you, should a better opportunity open up.

The fifth cause of failure is lack of imagination. According to Hill "without imagination, the leader is incapable of meeting emergencies, and of creating plans by which to guide his followers efficiently". Sadly to say, many Project Managers today seem to think that Project Management is a paint by numbers job – build a project plan and then everything will run along tickety-boo. It doesn't, and it doesn't help if the Project Manager cannot keep their head in a crisis, modify project plans, risks and issues on the fly, and quickly ascertain viable alternatives when the project is in crisis.

The sixth cause of failure is selfishness. Hill goes on to say "the leader who claims all the honour for the work of his followers is sure to be met by resentment. The really great leader claims none of the honours. He is contented to see the honours, when there are any, go to his followers, because he knows that most men will work harder for commendation and recognition than they will for money alone". And funny how those managers who do "steal all the glory" are the self same ones who never accept responsibility or take the blame, even for the most minor of problems.

The seventh cause of failure, according to Hill, is intemperance. By intemperance, Hill refers to over indulgence in any pleasures, be they food, drink, drugs, gambling or sex. Hill believed that "followers do not respect an intemperate leader. Moreover, intemperance, in any of its various forms, destroys the endurance and the vitality of all who indulge in it". Whilst this may seem somewhat quaint today, I think the point he was trying to make is that a great leader does not have time to over indulge in anything (the key being over indulge). A truly great leader always has his or her eyes on the prize!

The eight cause of failure is disloyalty. According to Hill, "the leader who is not loyal to his trust, and to his associates, those above him, and those below him, cannot long maintain his leadership". A manager who does not trust and respect their team will find the going very tough if they need to call for extra effort from the team.

The ninth cause of failure is an emphasis on the "authority" of leadership. Here, Hill is referring to those leaders and managers who manage through fear and intimidation, rather than respect. Those "I am the boss and you'll do what I say" types (and yes, they still exist). Hill goes on to say "the efficient leader leads by encouraging, and not by trying to instil fear in the hearts of his followers. ... If a leader is a real leader, he will have no need to advertise that fact except by his conduct - his sympathy, understanding, fairness, and a demonstration that he knows his job".

The tenth and final cause of failure is an emphasis on title. This touches on the subject of positional versus personal authority. A great leader or project manager has personal authority – if they were to be demoted to the lowest rank, they would still have the respect of their peers (and superiors) due to their personal authority. However, many managers rely on positional authority – such as a grand title (Executive Vice President or Corporate Change Manager) or the fact that they report directly to the Board of Directors. Remove them from that role and they are nothing! According to Hill "the competent leader requires no "title" to give him the respect of his followers. The man who makes too much over his title generally has little else to emphasize".

As with the attributes of a successful leader, I don't necessarily agree with all of Hill's choices, but again – it is a very good list. You could do worse than to memorise these. In summary, then, the major causes of failure in leadership are:

  1. Inability to organize details
  2. Unwillingness to do that which you ask of others
  3. Expectation of pay for what you know rather than what you do
  4. Fear of competition
  5. Lack of imagination
  6. Selfishness
  7. Intemperance, over indulgence
  8. Disloyalty
  9. Emphasis on the "authority" of leadership
  10. Emphasis on title

You can also read the previous article in this series Attributes of a Successful Leader.

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About the Author

Di Ellis is the owner of this site, and author of Manage That Project, a fantastically simple, easy to understand guide to project management.

You can read the excerpt from Think and Grow Rich in full here.

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