Leaders who lose their way

By Priscilla Rosenwald

We have been intrigued with long-term leaders and their ability or inability to continue to be innovative, inspirational and inclusive over time. More often, our experience with many long-term leaders has been that their tenure exceeds their abilities, and this finding has been confirmed by Bill George, celebrated author of True North, who speaks of “why leaders lose their way”.

As transition consultants, we encourage organizations to robustly assess their impact, direction and the effectiveness of their leadership. Leadership tenure does not automatically confer success – despite the status and prestige. This can easily be witnessed in the unlimited tenure of politicians, legislators and judges. Often they develop a sense of entitlement, and when these political leaders and legislators fall from grace, it is always because they “lost their way”. The same is true of organizational leaders, whether it is a large profit-driven business or a mission-driven nonprofit they are leading. In the end, it is their organizations that suffer.

George points to leaders being trapped by external gratification as the source of their fulfillment. Leaders who focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction find it difficult to stay grounded. They reject the honest critic who holds a mirror to their face and speaks the truth. Instead, they surround themselves with supporters telling them what they want to hear. Over time, they lose the capacity for honest dialogue, and people learn not to confront them. They often choose to listen only to people who reinforce their views, and miss opportunities for wise counsel and authentic conversations.

See if you recognize bosses or colleagues in these archetypes:

Imposters – They rise to leadership through the ranks using cunning and aggression to cover poor leadership skills. When they have acquired power, they are unable to act decisively.

Rationalizers – They blame external forces or subordinates when challenges arise. Without wise counsel, they often resort to desperate measures.

Glory Seekers – They define themselves by money, fame, glory and power, in lieu of building sustainable organizations.

Loners – They believe they can and must make it on their own. They reject feedback while their organizations unravel.

Shooting Stars – They move up so rapidly in their careers that they never have time to learn from their mistakes. When they arrive at the top, they are prone to make irrational decisions.

It is not difficult to spot these leaders who have lost their way, although their peers and colleagues often refrain from honest and challenging dialogue. From our perspective, it is the role of the board to assess and monitor the performance of the organization’s chief executive. If the board is unable to have effective and authentic conversations about how the leader is empowering others, by promoting innovation, inspiration and inclusion, they are not serving as solid stewards of their for-profit and non-profit organizations. It is the responsibility of the board leadership to know that the chief executive is engaged in honest, meaningful dialogue with their employees and their stakeholders. As stewards, they should be mindful of when the chief executive has lost their way to ensure that the organization, not just the leader, is thriving.

Too frequently, we see boards held hostage by long-term leaders, whose tenure is at best tenuous.