Why Smart Leaders Fail

Why Smart Leaders Fail

Smart leader doesn’t by default mean successful leader. There can be various reasons why this is true. I came across an article that gives some valuable insight on this important issue which I think are worth sharing. Here are the main points of the article

Some professional wounds are self-inflicted; others, the result of a mutual breakdown between the organization and the individual — poor role definition or a cultural mismatch, for example. Drawing on our own observations and conversations with senior business executives and human resources leaders, we explore the five most common reasons smart leaders fail and consider ways individuals and their companies can avoid the most damaging mistakes.

Misaligned expectations – The peril of misaligned expectations is especially acute in transitions to a new job or company. This can happen when a role is poorly defined or the skill-set required to be successful in the position is not fully understood — setting up the executive without these critical skills to fail.

Expectations can fall out of alignment when the needs of the business change, but the leader does not recognize or respond to these changes. Companies can be slow to replace an executive when the business suddenly calls for a leader with different skills — for example, in a merger or acquisition when the scope and scale of a job can expand dramatically. As one senior HR leader explained, “When an executive’s competencies are misaligned, this can be a source of failure for otherwise strong executives. Some leaders are great for growth environments; some are great for restructuring.” And in modern matrix organizational structures, executives might have to meet the varying expectations and accommodate the different work styles of multiple bosses.

Failing to adapt – Another pitfall for many smart leaders is assuming that excellence in their field is enough to propel them to ever loftier career heights. Technical excellence and specialized business knowledge are important drivers of professional success, but increasingly these are not enough to win and succeed in larger, more complex roles. Even the smartest functional or business leaders will hit a ceiling if they do not cultivate broad leadership skills and knowledge of the drivers of the business.

Executives taking on new responsibilities or moving into a new job within an organization often fail to recognize that the skills that they relied on to be effective in a different or narrower role may be counterproductive in the new context.

For many, evolving to a new or different role may mean abandoning a way of working that has been successful in the past or challenging themselves to suppress their instincts. “Overachievers can struggle to go from leader to learner or from leader to listener,” another senior HR leader explained

Underestimating the power of relationships – The network of relationships leaders build over the course of a career can be a tremendous asset in driving professional success, and increasingly an executive’s success is directly related to the way he or she interacts with superiors, peers and direct reports. When individuals work well with others and have positive professional relationships, other people will tell them what’s going on, warn them about potential challenges or landmines, and tolerate their mistakes. These leaders are more likely to hear about opportunities, receive valuable references and gain advice at key moments in their careers.

Bad professional behavior, on the other hand, also has consequences. Individuals who make themselves look good at the expense of others, are rude or unappreciative of the contributions of others, or don’t carry their weight in group efforts risk alienating people who can help or hurt them professionally. Similarly, managers won’t be effective if they are unwilling to delegate, share information or listen to others’ opinions.

Lack of self-awareness – Individuals whose egos keep them from listening to the concerns of others or who lack self-awareness about their own strengths and weaknesses also are likely to stumble at some point along the career path. Executives who appear uninterested in the opinions of others or threatened by questions or constructive feedback can be perceived as stubborn, uncooperative or insecure. And reacting negatively to the ideas and opinions of colleagues can isolate executives from others in the organization and discourage others from raising issues or providing helpful feedback in the future.

Cultural mismatch – Poor cultural fit, even more than an individual’s skills or capabilities, cause smart leaders to fail when they move to a new organization. As one CEO put it, “the single element that people just completely and utterly misjudge or underweight is a cultural mismatch.” In fact, when the cultural fit is off, the executive is likely to be rejected, even if he or she has all the right skills and experience. Once this happens, the executive’s ability to be effective is hobbled; he or she is excluded from key meetings; subordinates circumvent the new leader to go to the old one; and critical comments circulate — “He just doesn’t get it.” Meanwhile, the new executive finds himself or herself unwittingly breaking the organization’s unwritten rules. Conversely, if the cultural fit is sound, the individual is likely to get the support he or she needs to make up for any deficiencies in capabilities. 


Awareness is curative. Hope this post was helpful in creating more awareness of potential obstructions that make you or others in your organization less successful.


T. N.