Why Good Leaders Stumble

Dear Colleague,

What hijacks smart people to make poor quality decisions?   Why do we continue to stumble when we know better?

Patty Dunn, Chairman of the Board of Hewlett Packard, a dedicated, smart and personally courageous executive by almost every measure, stands accused of allegedly spying on her own board by hiring a firm that utilized “pretexting.”  Pretexting is  using the last four digits of another person’s social security number to obtain personal records, in this case, each board member’s telephone records.  Her  frustration of 18 months of “leaked” information from an HP board member, prompted the secret investigation.  Now that her decision has been made public, there are multiple implications, including her resignation as Chairman of the Board.

No one sets out to intentionally stumble, fall short, and do damage.  We don’t wake up and think “How can I really screw things up today?”  Good leaders and managers take on responsibilities because they believe they can successfully offer value inside and outside their companies.

Awareness of leadership pitfalls is the first step to avoid them. Here are the three areas that create the greatest amount of business failure.  Interesting, they are all about us, not the competition, when we get to the root cause.


The number one reason that leaders and managers stumble and make poor quality decisions is human emotion, pure and simple. When we get scared and overly aggressive, the primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.  Mike Tyson took it to a new low when he bit off the ear of Evander Holyfield.   We don’t see much of that in corporateAmericain the literal sense, but lashing out and making decisions in anger and frustration harm team relationships, endanger alliances, and lose customers.

Rarely has any lead ever say “I wish I had been meaner, nastier, and more aggressive in my management and if I had been, I would have gotten a better long-term result.”    Most autobiographies written by former masters and mistresses of the universe regret iron fisted management styles and the feeding of slash and burn corporate cultures.

Emotional intelligence, which is the delaying of impulsive behavior, continues to trump intellect every day, because everything gets done though people, not data.  Shimon Peres, who leadIsraelthrough dark and difficult times said “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact – not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”   Coping requires emotional intelligence.  Coping calls on the better part of us to delay an immediate, brash response and think through our decisions, preferably with wise counsel.

Idea for Action:  On a piece of paper and write down the exceptional people that you have known, those who made a difference in your life or work.   Was it only their IQ and intellect that made them exceptional?  Or was it also respect for you and your ideas, well-reasoned responses, and demonstrating a high level of emotional intelligence?


The second reason for poor quality decisions is too much talking and not enough listening.  Quiet, consultative leadership is remarkably effective.  Most subordinates don’t feel they have enough air time and many people don’t feel as if they are being heard.

It is easier for most leaders to talk than to listen.  So leaders and managers talk and talk and talk.  Within five minutes of most team sessions, the leader is dominating the group not with probing and insightful questions, but with directives and personal opinions.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Lyndon Johnson skillfully employed listening on his path of becoming the leader of the Senate and the most powerful majority leader of the 20th century.  Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ indicated that “Lyndon Johnson would stand or sit for a long time, motionless, intent, listening – pouring himself into that listening, all his being focused on what the other person was saying.”

When leaders pour themselves into listening to their team and to their stakeholders in an active, personal, and connected manner, there is probably no greater sign of respect.

Idea for Action: In your next discussion with a peer or team member, for the first five minutes don’t talk about yourself or your position on an issue. Just be dedicated to thoughtful listening without response. You may surprise yourself with what you will learn.


The number three reason that smart leaders and managers stumble is in not mentoring their team.   When the leaders in our client companies rank their competencies, “growing your team” is dead last on the list of 67 competencies.

Leaders and managers seem to be moving so fast today that most feel it is a waste of time to slow down and transfer what they know and how they do it to others.  But how many of us learned to ride a bike on our own?  It took a parent or a friend slowing down, teaching us, and then celebrating our wobbly efforts to pass on the bike-riding birthright to us.

Continuing education is both structured and unstructured. Classroom skills training, internet courses, assessment instruments, and outside coaching are foundational pieces of structured education.   However unstructured feedback, even five to ten minutes a day of mentoring and coaching by a direct supervisor to a team member, will make a huge difference.  We call it “just in time” coaching.  It is how cultures and civilization survive, how families prosper, and how management theory is turned into real-life experience and value.

Idea for Action:  Spend time with each member of your team one-on-one, with the focus toward their development and what they want to do in their professional life in the next one, three and five years.  Offer your perspective on where you see their career path along with steps you would recommend that they take – new job assignments, new projects, networking outside the organization, external coaching, utilizing internet courses, or more formal education. Don’t forget to review annual goals and help make them become bite size, actionable goals.

When good leaders stumble, three reasons almost always emerge as the culprits – lack of team development,  not listening to what is really going on in the company,  and letting unexamined human emotions rule the day.   So ultimately, it does all come down to us.

Susan sig