Leadership: Why so Many Fail

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Leadership: Why so Many Fail

….the successful leader is the one who most keenly senses the wishes of a potential audience. (Howard Gardner, Leading Minds, 1996)

The leader takes on the qualities which his adherents project onto him. (Kimball Young, Social Psychology, 1945)

The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes. (Tony Blair, Mail on Sunday, 1994)

There are over 70,000 books in English with the word leadership in the title. Many list the various ’secrets’ about how to become a successful leader. Yet a very large number fail. There is now an active interest in dark-side leadership and why so many leaders fail and derail. Three things, all of which are surprising and counter-intuitive to many people, characterize this growing and important literature.

First, it is the large number of leaders who fail and derail. The data from over a dozen studies suggest the number may be more like 50 per cent. That is, failure of one sort or other, is as common as success.

Second, failure and derailment comes as a shock to many because those that do, have nearly always been regarded as high flyers and in the talent group. It is those who have often be chosen for, and lauded with, particular talents that are most often among the derailers (Furnham, 2014). Why does a supposedly highly successful, carefully selected, leader fail and derail?

Third, failure is not exclusively due to the personality and pathology. The first is organizational culture and processes which can allow, even sow seeds of management failure. The second is employees or followers who are prepared to go along with, and obey the derailing leader. Thus one must be careful not to offer only personal, pathological explanations for this occurrence neglecting the other two. For fire you need heat, oxygen and fuel; for derailment you need personal pathology, willing followers and a poorly regulated and managed corporate culture.


Leadership researchers have turned from the personality traits to the personality disorders to try to explain leadership derailment and failure. Personality disorders are diagnosable when they are inflexible, maladaptive and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress.

One of the most important ways to differentiate personal style from personality disorder is flexibility. It is their inflexible, repetitive, poor stress-coping responses that are marks of disorder.

Personality disorders also influence the sense of self — the way people think and feel about themselves and how other people see them. The disorders often powerfully influence interpersonal relations at work.

People with clinical or sub-clinical personality disorders have difficulty expressing and understanding emotions. It is the intensity with which they express them and their variability that makes them odd. More importantly, they often have serious problems with self-control.

Hogan developed the well-known Hogan Development Survey (HDS) which dominates the dark-side literature. The HDS is a contextualized measure as it seeks to identify dysfunctional behaviours that impair work performance.

The DSM-IV and the HDS

DSM Labels




HDS Theme


Inappropriate anger; unstable and intense relationships alternating between idealization and devaluation.

Unstable Relationships


Moody and hard to please; intense, but short-lived enthusiasm for people, projects or things.


Distrustful and suspicious of others; motives are interpreted as malevolent.



Cynical, distrustful and doubting others’ true intentions.


Social inhibition; feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to criticism or rejection.

Fear of Failure


Reluctant to take risks for fear of being rejected or negatively evaluated.


Emotional coldness and detachment from social relationships; indifferent to praise and criticism.

Interpersonal Insensitivity


Aloof, detached, and uncommunicative; lacking interest in, or awareness of, the feelings of others.

Passive- Aggressive

Passive resistance to adequate social and occupational performance; irritated when asked to do something he/she does not want to.



Independent; ignoring people’s requests and becoming irritated or argumentative if they persist.


Arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes; grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement.



Unusually self-confident; feelings of grandiosity and entitlement; overvaluation of one’s capabilities.


Disregard for the truth; impulsivity and failure to plan ahead; failure to conform with social norms.



Enjoying risk taking and testing limits; needing excitement; manipulative, deceitful, cunning and exploitative.


Excessive emotionality and attention seeking; self-dramatizing, theatrical and exaggerated emotional expression.



Expressive, animated and dramatic; wanting to be noticed and needing to be the centre of attention.


Odd beliefs or magical thinking; behaviour or speech that is odd, eccentric or peculiar.

No Common Sense


Acting and thinking in creative and sometimes odd or unusual ways.

Obsessive- Compulsive

Preoccupations with orderliness, rules, perfectionism and control; over conscientious and inflexible.



Meticulous, precise and perfectionistic; inflexible about rules and procedures; critical of others’ performance.


Difficulty making everyday decisions without excessive advice and reassurance; difficulty expressing disagreement out of fear of loss of support or approval.



Eager to please and reliant on others for support and guidance; reluctant to take independent action or go against popular opinion.

Predictably the two dark-side traits most often implicated in derailment are psychopath and narcissist.

Why are they selected?

First, selection involves both ’select in’, and ’select out’: looking for characteristics you want and don’t want. It is the failure to do good ’select out’ work at selection which means potential derailers get through. ’Select out’ criteria are often thought of as ’not enough’ of the ’select in’ criteria, rather than something different.

Second, when selecting for particular competencies or features (team work, innovativeness) they assume that more is better (linearity) rather than a more cautious curvilinear approach. This issue refers to extreme scorers. In this sense a very high score on a healthy competency could be a sign of potential derailment. This being rated as a very strong team player may indicate someone who ’hides’ in teams and is dependent rather than independent.

Third, when an analysis of failed and derailed leaders is made, there is a consistent, and for many, surprising finding, that there were many early biographical markers of their future failure. That is, when looking back there were clear indicators of the traits that later proved so crucial in leading to derailment.

Fourth, while the use of references has been shown to be problematic, a detailed structured interview with various people who have known the candidate well can provide extremely quick, cheap and relevant information on such things as the three indicators below.


The modern literature based on both psychological and psychiatric theory suggests that underlying all the leader derailment (and all personality disorders) there are three very fundamental markers. These make a useful and simple checklist at selection interviews without the use of a questionnaire.

Relationships: Can the person establish and maintain healthy, happy, long-term relationships with various sort of people?

Self-Awareness: Does the person have insight into themselves?

Adaptability, Learning and Transitioning: At various times in a work career people have to learn to let go of old, odd, dysfunctional assumptions and beliefs. Further they need to acquire new skills and ideas.


Babiak, P., & Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in Suits. New York, NY: Regan Books.

Dotlich, D. & Cairo, P. (2003). Why CEOs fail. New York: Jossey Bass.

Furnham, A. (2014). Bullies and Bastards. London: Bloomsbury.

Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Judge, T.A., Piccolo, R.F., & Kosalka, T. (2009). The bright and dark sides of leader traits: A review and theoretical extension of the leader trait paradigm. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 855—75.