Why New Leaders Fail

Last Updated Nov 3, 2008 2:05 PM EST

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Moving into a leadership role is far from easy. Rarely are you given a blueprint of what it takes to be successful. New leaders are left to work that out for themselves. But there are a couple of big banana skins they can avoid if they are aware of them.

One of the main reasons people fail is that they apply the same approach and the same behaviour that made them successful in their last role. It's only natural -- very few people persist in things that fail or stop doing things that succeed. The psychologist Edward Thorndike called this the Law of Effect. We call it common sense.

But new leaders have to think beyond the formula: performance leads to results. They now have to consider another 'p', perception, and another 'r', relationships.

Perception Your success in a job, especially in the first 90 days, depends to a large degree on how you are perceived by others. Perceptions of you are principally based on your observed behaviour -- what you say, what you do, what decisions you make, how you react to situations, how you treat people. You are what people perceive you to be. Individuals who fail to understand that limit their career potential severely.

The higher up the leadership ladder you move the more the things you say and do are scrutinised and magnified. As Niall FitzGerald, deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters, once said: "One of the things that leaders don't fully recognise is that when they speak or act, they are speaking into an extraordinary amplification system."

Actions to which you may pay little attention will be subject to interpretation -- and misinterpretation.

There's a story about a factory manager who inadvertently fuelled a belief among staff that the business was going to be sold to a Japanese company simply by taking a group of Japanese managers on a tour of the factory to show them some new processes.

Relationships Leadership implies getting other people to do things. But "followership" is not the pure reciprocal of leadership. Getting things done depends on a lot of people other than direct reports. Without the support and advice of individuals in different parts of the business, it would be impossible to work through the obstacles that systems, processes, procedures and interest groups create. Every successful manager knows there is a formal structure and an informal one -- and it is the informal one that actually makes things work.

Research into why new leaders fail shows they don't know who they should be creating relationships with and, more than 75 per cent of the time, they haven't got a clear idea of what behaviour's expected and what is censured.

Unless they identify the people who can help them with this, and establish good relationships with them, it's likely they'll fail in their new role.

(Photo: a.drian, CC2.0)

  • Robin Stuart-Kotze

    Robin Stuart-Kotze is a founder of the consultancy Behavioural Science Systems, whose clients include P&O, BP, Oracle, and Johnson & Johnson. He’s also made his way in management, largely in the financial services sector in the UK and Canada. A distinguished academic with a PhD in organisational psychology, Robin co-wrote “Who Are Your Best People?” about effective talent management.