Chapter 7 – Why and When Leadership Fails

Communication scholar Dr. Jen Ptacek pointed out that we often equate leadership with good leadership (Omilion-Hodges & Ptacek, 2021). She couldn’t have been more correct with this accurate observation. But here is the rub: often, we’re quick to offer examples of when leadership fell short of our expectations or didn’t treat employees like people or otherwise violated employee expectations.

This does not mean that good leadership doesn’t exist, but rather it is a helpful reminder of how challenging leading well is. It requires individuals to be audience-centered and creative yet pragmatic simultaneously. That is a tall order!

In this chapter, we will consider why and when leadership fails; from individuals assuming leadership roles when they are not interested or not ready, to crisis situations, to instances where transitions do not go as planned.

 

Am I Ready to Lead?

Taking a leadership role is a large responsibility and often not exactly what people expect. Why is that? Employees are often promoted because of their technical expertise. That means that they tend to be very good with a specific skill set, but then find the managerial role requires different abilities. Perhaps they are skilled salespeople or excellent engineers or talented mechanics. Yet, just because you are an in-demand hair stylist or barber, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should open your own shop and tackle the business side of the role as well. For some, this is a natural progression and turns out to be a good fit. For many others, they realize they are no longer using the same skills that they worked so hard to develop. For example, when moving into a project or team lead role, an engineer may no longer be involved in the research and design process, but rather spends their days reviewing invoices, project requests, and navigating supply chain issues. While there is a certain prestige attached to leadership roles, it does not necessarily mean it is the right fit or right next step for all employees. In fact, more organizations are attempting to build in additional promotion opportunities for those who want to remain engineers, salespeople, data specialists, etc.,

Liz Ryan, former contributor to Forbes, compiled a list of indicators that you’re ready for a leadership role. Relatedly, she also made note of signs that you may not find leadership a good fit.

You may be ready for a leadership role if:

  1. You have high-quality relationships with your peers
  2. You are interested in how the organization works at macro and micro levels
  3. You have learned from your previous managers—the good and the not so good
  4. You’re ready to learn more about yourself and others. Leadership is a people-focused role.
  5. You’re looking forward to strengthening your workplace relationships
  6. You’re already the go-to for information about the workgroup or the organization
  7. People already assume that you’re a manager
  8. You have ideas on how to innovate the organization, save money, or otherwise improve work processes
  9. You enjoy listening to others and problem-solving
  10. You see the potential in others and enjoy motivating and encouraging those around you

In a quick review of this list, we can see the focus on adept communication skills and an other-oriented focus. If you enjoy engaging with others, helping them to navigate tricky situations, while considering how to maximize output, then you’re likely well-positioned to lead.

It is important to remember that leadership roles are not for everyone. This is not a bad thing either! It boils down to self-reflection to consider if a leadership role aligns with your interests, natural talents, and likes. One of the authors does not consider academic leadership positions desirable, at least at this moment in time, as it would take her away from the two things she loves most about her job –teaching and researching. This does not mean that she can’t enact leadership in the classroom, in her department, or in the community, but rather that she recognizes that a leadership role would not align with her current interests.

You may not be ready or interested in a formal leadership role if:

  1. You want the job only because it pays more
  2. The title and related perks are more desirable than performing the role
  3. You only want the role to escape your current job
  4. You are interested in directing others (not necessarily listening or collaborating)
  5. You are interested in using your power to formally write-up or remove specific employees
  6. You think employees tend to be lazy and unmotivated
  7. You find speaking up challenging
  8. You are not ready to have open and sometimes challenging conversations with others
  9. You don’t respect your organization’s top leadership team
  10. You want the role because it seems easy

The good news is that there are many ways to “try on” leadership roles before you’re in a position to apply for them. Moreover, you can (and should!) always engage in self-leadership where you communicate and act in ways that demonstrate respect, trust, and safety for self and others.

What can you do now to practice your leadership skills or develop them through temporary, and lower-stakes situations?

  • Apply to be on an executive board of a student organization
  • Volunteer to lead a group project
  • Tutor or teach others
  • Create a group that aligns with your interests
  • Become a residence hall advisor
  • Join an intermural sports team
  • Be a part of student government

In addition to formal leadership roles, you can also strengthen your leadership skills by doing the following:

  • Working on time management, prioritizing
  • Practice active listening
  • Take a real interest in others
  • Finetune your presentation skills
  • Be the team member that you want to have

The takeaway of this section is that leadership tends to go awry when someone is not ready or not fully invested in the role. Leadership roles are demanding and often take organizational members away from the tasks that they enjoyed doing before. Formal leadership positions can be incredibly fulfilling, but generally only if someone is eager and able to assume the many, many responsibilities that come along with the title.

 

Leading During Crisis

Just as leadership can crumble when employees are not ready for the role or interested in the role, it can also fail when the organization encounters a crisis. Crises can be short-term (days to a few months), long-term (a year or longer), or sustained (indefinitely). These unexpected situations can make an already stressful role feel unmanageable. The other challenge that goes hand in hand with leading during a crisis is that in the absence of an answer or solution, many times leaders are treated as scapegoats and are terminated to show that the organization is acting.

Oftentimes when we hear the term “crisis,” we tend to think of catastrophic scenarios such as natural disasters or sweeping leadership scandals such as those of the likes of Elizabeth Holmes and Bernie Madoff. However, it is also important to consider how everyday organizational occurrences can create mini-crises or issues that ultimately lead to a larger crisis. Some examples include:

  • The group or organization lacks the necessary resources to complete their work (i.e., financial, human, knowledge, time, etc.).
  • Communication and coordination across departments or with external stakeholders (i.e., customers, vendors, suppliers, etc.) is lacking.
  • Employees have lost trust or faith in the organization or its leadership
  • Team members are competitive, secretive, or otherwise uncollaborative.
  • Employees are unaware of their individual responsibilities or how their role fits into the organization as a whole
  • Employees are checked-out, apathetic, or otherwise unengaged with the work

While we might not think of the previous instances as crises, what happens when our lack of resources begins to impact our ability to fulfil orders in a timely manner? Or what happens when our competitive employees leave the organization without passing on their knowledge? It is important to remember that crises present in all shapes and forms and that leaders must be able to recognize how smaller issues may grow into larger, unwieldy ones if they are not addressed.

Just as there are small or potential crises, there are also large and immediate ones. Perhaps a product is not safe and requires a large recall or you learn that the lettuce you grow and supply nationwide is making people sick due to an E. coli breakout. These instances require swift and deceive leadership action.

 

How do leaders successfully navigate crises?

  • Anticipate potential problems, challenges, or issues ahead of time. Appointing an emergency preparedness team can allow an organization to consider potential crises and create detailed plans, so that if the worst happens, they are already prepared. This aligns with the adage that the best offense is a good defense. This aligns with a problem-finding orientation. By being proactive, we can often avoid the problem-solving orientation which is reactive.
  • Identify early warning signs. While onboarding and training new employees, especially managers, it can be helpful to walk them through signs or instances that should be monitored or reported. In the healthcare setting, for example, it may be signs that a caregiver is beginning to experience feelings of burnout or emotional exhaustion. Leaders may also be trained to flag concerns such as communication challenges, process delays, and customer critiques or negative experiences among others.
  • Appoint a team to analyze the crisis. Having an emergency preparedness team in place before a crisis is essential. Instead of wasting time trying to figure out who should be on the team or where to meet or how to contact everyone, the plan is already set. The team should work swiftly to analyze the situation holistically from what has occurred to how it has occurred, who is impacted and how are they impacted. While the team should work swiftly, it is essential they craft a comprehensive and thoughtful response rather than simply reacting. Many a leader and organization have lost credibility by speaking too quickly, overpromising, or offering information that is not supported by data. For example, many look at the US government’s initial response to COVID-19 with early statements suggesting it was no worse than the flu and that the pandemic would be over before Easter in 2020 as an example of a reactive and inaccurate crisis response.
  • Take immediate steps to rectify the situation. Accidents and crises happen. Many times, these negative or unexpected outcomes are out of our control. What is in a leader’s control, however, is how they respond to a situation and attempt to make it right. This may mean creating a new quality control team, hiring outside firms, integrating new testing procedures, or augmenting employee training. While the situation may make one feel helpless, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, it is essential to mobilize all resources, collaborate with other organizations and agencies, and ask for help.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is always essential but is indispensable during crises. Leaders should ensure frequent information updates, even if the update is something along the lines of “no new information at this time. Check back at 8:00 am tomorrow.” People tend to be fairly understanding if no new information is available but should also be told when they can expect another check-in or update.
  • Reflect, debrief, and learn. Leaders should treat crises as a learning experience. By reviewing the incident, how the organization responded, and the related outcomes, leaders and their organizations can be better prepared to avoid such situations by revising or adding to their emergency preparedness plans. This should include how to avoid the crisis, how to better respond, reflection on messaging, and other facts that the organization learned throughout the process. This is an essential, but unfortunately often overlooked or missed step.

A final aspect of leadership and crisis that needs to be addressed is the glass cliff. Some may be familiar with the related metaphor of the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling refers to the experience many minorities encounter in terms of lack of access to top leadership positions in their organization or industry. They can see the next level or levels of leadership, but they have achieved as high as they are able to as a minority.

The glass cliff refers to the fact that many women and other minorities are only able to secure top leadership positions when an organization is in crisis or undergoing severe challenges. Why is this the case? Traditional candidates will likely look at the job, recognize the inherent risk, and pass on the job. This means that it may be more likely that a minority candidate will secure the role, but it also means that to break into the upper echelon of leadership, minorities often do so at the most perilous and challenging of times. This means that they are looked upon with more scrutiny and inherent a position that is more likely to lead to failure.

 

Leadership Transitions (Gone Wrong)

One scenario that is often a recipe for disaster is when leaders overlook the importance of training those below them or considering how to seamlessly transition new leaders in when others leave. This is especially important today with three generations working shoulder to shoulder in most industries. If we don’t take the time to allow others to shadow and gain hands on experience, retirements can leave a department or even an organization in a precarious situation.

Succession planning refers to the active, intentional plan that organizations and its leaders put in place to keep organizational functioning high even during times of transition. Stan Hannah (2020) simplifies succession planning into six steps.

  1. Identify challenges facing the organization. Taking the time to forecast what the social, financial, political, etc., environment looks like 2 -5 years out will help those in leadership pinpoint what skills the next generation of leaders need in order to be successful.
  2. Create a leadership success profile that prioritizes key characteristics. After identifying the issues the next generation of leaders is likely to face, you can more effectively hone in on the specific skills and abilities that they will need. This allows organizations to mindfully create a framework for how to successfully develop internal employees (or how to craft job ads for external candidates).
  3. Address the tough questions. Just as it is important to have open dialogue in your interpersonal relationships—those with friends, romantic partners, and family members—it is also important to do so in the workplace. Being able to speak candidly about what has been going well and even more importantly, the challenges that the organization has faced, or leader shortfalls will allow the organization to be better positioned for success in the future.
  4. Select the new leader. The previous steps should have helped to clarify this process so that it was fairly clear what skills and abilities the new leader needed in order to address current and future organizational challenges.
  5. Develop an integration plan. Hannah (2020) reminds us that succession planning is not over once we hire a new leader. Instead, succession planning is a two-part process: selecting the candidate and helping that candidate to excel. An integration plan is part of the onboarding process and is designed to provide the candidate information that is needed to help them succeed.
  6. Start transition planning early. The succession process doesn’t happen overnight. When done well, it is a thoughtful and somewhat lengthy process. This is partially why it doesn’t happen as often as it should. It also requires top leaders to be planful with their exits, which isn’t always a reality or option if there are layoffs, illnesses, or other unexpected factors at play.

As you saw above, while succession planning is the gold standard of leadership transitions there are many reasons why it doesn’t always happen in a textbook fashion. One thing that organizations can do you on an ongoing basis to ensure that organizational functioning is high even when employees are out or leave the organization is to cross-train.

Cross-training is when employees are trained on others’ roles. Why the heck would we take the time to train an employee on a role he/she/they didn’t apply for and don’t typically enact? When others are ill or on parental leave or medical leave, the organization can continue to function at full tilt. This is also helpful in the case someone leaves the organization unexpectedly—they do not take all of the knowledge of the role with them. Another benefit of cross-training is that employees learn new skills that they can add to their resumes!

 

7.1 Leadership in Action: Collaboration, Debate, Discussion, and Dialogue

We have discussed a number of situations where leadership is likely to fail (or at least not necessarily shine). Underdeveloped communication skills are another area where a leader is likely to run into challenges.

Below we discuss some common types of communication that occur in the workplace. We also provide specific suggestions for how to navigate these encounters successfully, and some practices to avoid.

Collaboration: Generally speaking, leaders should always strive for a collaborative tone. Even when leaders need to make the final decision, it bolsters employee empowerment and usually the outcome of the decision if the leader collaborates on possible solutions or alternatives with their team. Collaboration means working together, listening to others, valuing their perspectives, experiences, and opinions even when they differ from your own. Leaders who value team functioning and team health will work to create a collaborative environment. Leaders can do this by asking members’ opinions, creating spaces and time for them to share it, and being transparent in regard to how and why decisions are made. Managers want to avoid DINO – Dialogue In Name Only. It is one thing to say that you care about your team’ opinions and ideas, and it is another to reflect that in your behavior.

Debate: Think about a political debate. What comes to mind? They tend to be heated, filled with interruptions, exasperated body language, and a winner and a loser. When we engage in debate, we are typically seeking to win or best the other participant. We can still bring debate into the workplace in a productive and civil manner, but this requires thoughtful monitoring from the leader (or another facilitator). Perhaps we have two viable project plans on the table. The leader may facilitate a debate with the intention of selecting one of the plans to move forward with. If debate is selected, it is important that the leader establish rules (no interruptions, collaborative nature, no raised voices, etc.) and maintain those guidelines. A leader should not pit ideas or people against one another or leave employees to navigate this process on their own or without ground rules in place.

Discussion: Discussion is the intentional exchange of ideas where all parties take turns offering suggestions and actively listening to those others offer. Unlike debate, discussion is not seen as a zero-sum endeavor – that is, there is no winner or loser. Rather, discussion allows group members to come together to discuss options, consider alternatives, ponder possible consequences, and arrive at decisions. Thoughtful and frequent discussions are a sign of team health. Leaders can help to facilitate discussion by sharing the meeting agenda ahead of time, asking members to prepare ideas (if desired), and role modeling desired behavior such as active listening, turn taking, and engagement. Leaders should try to avoid bringing up new ideas without any warning and expecting a thoughtful discussion. Managers will also be well-served to consider how to involve each member to that no one person is dominating the conversation, and no one is refraining from participating.

Dialogue: Dialogue is the ongoing process of how we connect and communicate with others. Dialogue implies an exchange where all parties feel comfortable sharing and know that others will truly listen to what they are sharing. It is one thing to tell an employee that they can come into your office at any time, but it is another to actually do it. If we say we have an open-door policy, but then we are short or curt with employees when they attempt to ask us questions, then we are not engaging in dialogic communication. As mentioned before, we want to avoid DINO – dialogue in name only.

 

Chapter Resources

Critical Incidents in Leadership – Mini Case Study

Many large organizations have suffered embarrassment and even litigation because their top leaders did not want to acknowledge or hear “bad news.” This is known as the ostrich effect. Ostriches tend to stick their heads in the sand and this idea has been used to explain the tendency some people have for attempting to avoid undesirable news or outcomes. One notable experience is when Volkswagen executives instructed employees to lie about achieving the goal of developing a diesel car that met emissions standards. When it became clear that Volkswagen had in fact concealed the actual numbers and instead presented fabrications, former CEO Martin Winterkorn came under scrutiny. Many top executives reported a culture based on fear where they were literally afraid to share less than desirable news with the CEO since he would demean them. Knowing what you know now about how to communicate clearly and with intention, how would you communicate “bad” news in this environment? Relatedly, if you were tapped to take Winterkorn’s place after this scandal, what communication guidelines would you put in place to move away from the fear-based culture employees were used to?

 

Leadership Communication in the Media

  1. Are You Ready to Lead? The UK National Health Service has created a free self-assessment to help you gauge your personal leadership readiness. The self-assessment tool asks you to reflect on your behaviors in seven key leadership areas: 1) Demonstrating personal qualities, 2) Working with others, 3) Managing services, 4) Improving services, 5) Setting direction, 6) Creating the vision, and 7) Delivery strategy. While this assessment can also aid you in leadership development (more in Chapter 8), it can also help you to reflect on your current readiness to assume a leadership position. This self-reflection can help you to determine if you are ready to take on that level of responsibility. You can access the assessment here: https://www.leadershipacademy.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/NHSLeadership-Framework-LeadershipFrameworkSelfAssessmentTool.pdf

 

  1. From the Glass Ceiling to the Glass Cliff, women and people of color are often promoted when organizations are in a state of crisis. Most are familiar with the idea of the glass ceiling or the metaphor of an invisible barrier that keeps women and people of color from holding top leadership positions or other positions of power. The glass ceiling builds on this idea and describes the position that many minorities in top leadership positions find themselves. That is, they are able to earn the top positions—CEO, COO, CFO, etc., —when the organization is in crisis and the position, therefore, is less desirable to more traditional candidates. While leading an organization is challenging during the best of times, consider the added pressures, scrutiny, and challenges leaders face during crisis. The link below is from Today.com and presents an easy-to-read piece on the glass cliff. If you’re interested in more, we recommend checking out Glass and Cook’s (2020) Pathways to the glass cliff: A risk tax for women and minority leaders? The article is available via Google Scholar and should be accessible to you via your library’s database subscriptions. https://www.today.com/tmrw/glass-cliff-why-women-people-color-are-often-set-fail-t189060

 

  1. Cross Training Comes with Many Benefits including saving money and learning new skills. Cross-training helps to keep groups and organizations functioning at full strength, even when members are out or otherwise unable to complete their routine tasks. Instead of having to tell customers that “Jim is out of town so we can’t process your shipment until he returns,” you’ll be able to keep moving a full tilt because Betty is training on shipment process, as is David. This short article from Mind Tools provides a straightforward cross training process that will help you and your team to consider how to develop additional bench strength. https://www.mindtools.com/ara7oku/cross-training

 

  1. Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, also known as Captain Sully, famously landed his plane on the Hudson River due to an aircraft malfunction. The movie, Sully, provides a detailed depiction of leading during a crisis AND how true leaders act during hardship. The film is rated PG-13.

 

  1. When Good People Are Bad Leaders, is a popular episode on The Communicative Leader podcast. It can be accessed here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2018897/11415691 and on podcast streaming devices.

 

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Leadership Communication: Principles and Practice Copyright © 2024 by Leah Omilion-Hodges and Annette Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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