The Surprising Reason Leaders Fail

Last Updated Sep 2, 2010 3:58 PM EDT

Let's sit you down in front of a video camera and and ask a simple question:

What is the biggest mistake a leader can make?

What's your answer? My initial response, after pondering the recent fates of Tony Hayward, Mark Hurd and Gordon Brown, was this: The biggest mistake that can be made is to surrender humility (the greatest asset any leader can have) to ego. It's being directed by that swelled feeling that I'm the boss, people listen to me for a reason, I am the organization.

Now let's look at what nine experts on leadership had to say to the same question. You can see the video on HBR.org, called The Biggest Mistake a Leader Can Make, but I'll summarize the responses.

  • Putting their self-interests ahead of the interests of the organization. (Bill George, Harvard Business School).
  • Betray trust. (Evan Wittenberg, Google).
  • Being certain. (Dr. Ellen Langer, Harvard University).
  • Not living up to their own values. (Andrew Pettigrew, Oxford.)
  • Lose capacity for self-doubt. (Gianpiero Petriglieri, Insead).
  • Arrogance and hubris. (Carl Sloane, HBS)
  • Act too quickly. (Jonathan Doochin, Harvard College)
  • Inconsistency and arrogance. (Scott Snook, HBS)
  • Failure to be self-reflective. (Daisy Wademan Dowling, Morgan Stanley).
Their answers in aggregate were rather surprising. It's not a failure of intelligence or technical skill that brings down powerful people, our experts mostly agreed. Rather, it was a failure of character and values. Bill George of HBS calls it being on "True North," and leaders who deviate from this compass heading definitely lose their way.

This is a dilemma that all business management schools are grappling with today. We can teach students great skills and technique. We can show them the history of successful companies and people. We can develop them into better managers and critical thinkers. But how do we teach moral fiber and integrity -- the key ingredients needed to create successful leaders?

How would you answer when asked, What's the biggest mistake a leader can make?

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Steve Weaver, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.