The stories of leadership failure are many. From the recent flurry of activity brought on by high profile leaders who visited a website that promoted adultery, to the resignations of several corporate CEOs who submitted fake expense reports, to a United States Senator resigning from office when an illicit affair was covered up, they just keep on happening…

Once the media and the public received word about these indiscretions, none of the above stories turned out well for the leaders, but they do beg the question "how did this happen?"

The leaders in the above situations were all at the proverbial ‘top of their game’, they had recognition from their peers, monetary success, and the respect of their subordinates.

According to Professor Bill George of the Harvard Business School, leaders who lose their way are “not necessarily bad people; rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths.” Do some leaders fall away as a result of losing their courage, their moral compass, or both? As professor George wrote for the Harvard Business Review, it is not a matter of intention. Leaders usually don’t take up the mantle with the intent to do harm, lie, steal, cheat, or hurt others. Simply put, they fall into various leadership traps they are unable to escape from at the time.

People who are willing to step into a leadership role usually do it for one of two reasons; outward recognition or inner fulfillment. Anyone who wants power, prestige, or monetary gain is usually looking for the outward or external recognition that comes with many leadership roles. Someone who is desirous of serving others or some purpose greater than themselves is usually on the pathway of personal or internal satisfaction.

As George states "leaders whose goal is the quest for power over others, unlimited wealth, or the fame that comes with success tend to look to others to gain satisfaction, and often appear self-centered and egotistical." In other words, "they start to believe their own press." Usually, there is a tipping point when the leader thinks, feels and acts as if the organization is incapable of being managed without them at the helm. That is the point in time, they fall into the leadership trap.

From a monetary viewpoint, many leaders succumb to the continual performance rewards that are heaped upon them by a grateful board, or a thrilled set of stockholders. The monetary reward system provides more and more of the benefits which creates a tendency for the leader to want even more perquisites and benefits.

Daniel Vasella, the Chairman of Novartis said "leading the company from peak to peak, delivering the goods quarter by quarter – is an intoxicating one. It is a pattern of celebration leading to belief, leading to distortion… you begin to believe that the figure at the center of all that champagne-toasting is yourself."

When the leader of an organization has their focus on the external reason for leadership, they can easily lose their moorings. If they surround themselves with ‘yes’ people and others who will not confront them with viable and meaningful issues, the entire organization can be headed down the slippery slope of decline. If that particular type of situation exists, it brings new meaning to the phrase “as the leaders go, so go the people.” It impacts the entire organization.  

Once the leader starts ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ of added power, wealth, or even fame, they begin transitioning to the external side, or self-aggrandizement side of leadership. They are unable to acknowledge failure. Or when failure occurs, they blame someone else. To make matters worse, they can also use their position in an organization to ‘change the message’ or ‘improve the spin’ in order to make things appear to be better than reality. These changes in the leader can impact the entire organization in a very negative way. 

As a business leader, if you believe that the value of a leader is directly proportional to that leader’s values, as the saying goes, then the higher the person’s values, the greater the leader.

In order to avoid the outer focus and concentrate on the inner focus of leadership growth, leaders need to develop a system that supports values. They need to interface with others who will hold them accountable. People who can influence them in significant ways and tell them what is real and what is not. Having good values and accountability can help your business succeed and grow.

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