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6 Warning Signs of Leadership Failure

Our local churches (and huge, publicly traded companies) go down in flames under the guidance of capable leaders with questionable ethics. In the recent past, we’ve witnessed the public downfall of leaders from almost every arena of society. One day, they’re on top of the heap; the next, shame and infamy are heaped on them.

While our outrage at disgraced leaders may be justified, we fail to realize how quickly “they” become “us.” The distance between beloved leader and despised failure is shorter than we think. Fallen leaders never set out to sacrifice their integrity, abandon ethical behavior, or exploit those they lead. But it happened! Their failures should be our cautions. Mark Sanborn, in his article “Why Leaders Fail,” gives us six warning signs of leadership failure we should heed:

Warning Sign #1: A Shift in Focus
Leaders are usually distinguished by their ability to “think big.” But as their focus shifts, their thinking shrinks. Often, leaders simply lose sight of what’s important. They micromanage, get caught up in minutiae, and succumb to perfectionism in trivial decisions better left to others. Even more subtle is an obsession with “doing” rather than “becoming.” A leader’s greatest influence flows from inner vision and integrity, but it’s possible for a leader to become infatuated with action and, in the process, lose touch with the all-important development of character. Busier isn’t always better. What is your primary focus right now? If you can’t write it on the back of your business card, then your leadership suffers from a lack of clarity.

Warning Sign #2: Poor Communication
Lack of focus disorients a leader and sets the stage for poor communication. Followers can’t possibly understand a leader’s intent when the leader isn’t even sure what it is! Sometimes, leaders delude themselves into believing that committed followers can sense their goals and carry out their wishes without being told. When misunderstandings arise, managers blame their people for lack of effort (or commitment) rather than recognizing their own communication negligence. “Say what you mean, and mean what you say” is timeless advice, but it must be preceded by knowing what you mean! Clarity of purpose is the starting point for all effective communication.

Warning Sign #3: Risk Aversion
Past victories create pressure for leaders: “Will I be able to sustain outstanding performance?” The longer a leader is successful, the higher his or her perceived cost of failure will be. When driven by the fear of failure, leaders are unable to take reasonable risks. They limit themselves to tried and proven pathways. Attempts at innovation—key to their initial success—diminish and eventually disappear. Which is more important to you: the journey or the destination? Are you still taking reasonable risks? Prudent leadership avoids reckless risk, but neither is it paralyzed by fear.

Warning Sign #4: Ethics Slip
A leader’s credibility depends upon two qualities: what he or she does (competency) and who he or she is (character). Deficiencies in either create an integrity problem. The highest principle of leadership is integrity. When ethical compromise is rationalized as necessary for the “greater good,” a leader is on the slippery slope of failure. All too often, leaders see their followers as pawns, mere means to an end. As a result, they confuse manipulation with leadership. Such leaders rapidly lose respect. To save face, they cease to be people “perceivers” and become people “pleasers,” using popularity to ease the guilt of lapsed integrity. Are there areas of conflict between what you believe and how you behave?

Warning Sign #5: Poor Self-Management
If a leader doesn’t take care of him/herself, no one else will. Unless a leader is blessed with unusually perceptive followers, nobody will pick up on signs of fatigue and stress. Leaders are counted on to produce, but they aren’t superheroes with limitless energy. While leadership is invigorating, it is also tiring. Like anyone other mere mortal, leaders are susceptible to feeling drained, depressed, and demotivated. Those who neglect their physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual needs are headed for disaster. Make time for refreshment and replenishment. Take care of yourself. Self-preservation isn’t selfish; it’s vital to the health of those you lead.

Warning Sign #6: Lost Love
Leaders face impending disaster when they abandon their first love. The hard work of leadership should be fulfilling and fun. However, when divorced from their dreams, leaders may find the responsibility of leadership to be frustrating and fruitless. To stay motivated, leaders must stick to what they love and rediscover what compelled them to accept the mantle of leadership in the first place. To make sure that you stay on the track of following your first love, frequently ask yourself these three questions: Why did I initially pursue leadership? Have those reasons changed? Do I still want to lead?

The warning signs in life—from stoplights to prescription labels—are intended for our good. They protect us from disaster, and we would be foolish to ignore them. Don’t be afraid to take an honest look at yourself.  

Adapted from Mark Sanborn, “Why Leaders Fail” Leadership Wired, 08/08.

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Gary D. Foster founded and leads Gary D. Foster Consulting, a marketing and management service specializing in helping religious product companies and ministries discover and optimize new revenue streams and to better leverage existing ones. He served as an executive with Focus on the Family, where he managed their award-winning book publishing operation and $110 million direct-mail fundraising division. He also spent 12 years with the Christian Booksellers Association, where he served as President and CEO of CBA Service Corporation. He also served in executive product development and marketing positions with Cook Communications Ministries, Moody Press and Moody Magazine. Learn more about Gary at www.GaryDFoster.com.