How to Fail as a Leader

The authors of the new book 'Real-Time Leadership' outline the traits of effective leaders (kindness is key) and what will ensure a leader’s failure.

Employees throw wads of paper at their boss because of bad leadership.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“My wife, ‘Emily,’ was recently named to run an important division in her employer’s auto accessories company. She is one of the most capable people I know for any job, but is terrified of these new responsibilities and has expressed a great deal of self-doubt, which is really out of character. Do you know of a resource for someone who suddenly finds themselves in a leadership role? I know that one day she will become CEO, but right now my wife is a trembling puppy. She is a very kind person and worried if that aspect of her personality will interfere with this new position. Emily responds well when shown what not to do. Thanks, ‘Bob.’”

'Kindness is the key to effective leadership'

In my recent chat with David Noble and Carol Kauffman, authors of the just-published Real-Time Leadership: Find Your Winning Moves When the Stakes Are High, both underscored an important and sometimes overlooked element of effective leadership: kindness.

Both authors distill their years in executive coaching and academia into a highly accessible read that provides a how-to approach for the challenges of leadership, but not only for executives. Real-Time Leadership also illuminates a dark room where family members often find themselves where one has received an important promotion or assignment.

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I asked Noble and Kauffman for their lists of the things that can lead to a leader failing. Here's what Noble said:

1. Failing to connect with your team.

Consequences: When stepping into a new job, a guaranteed method of failure is to not connect with your team, just coming in and assuming that you know everything and there is no need to understand your people, their strengths, wants and needs and what the business is all about.

2. Failing to read the culture.

Consequences: The culture might be a highly supportive, collaborative environment, but if you come in as a leader who is going to micromanage your employees, this will prove to be highly destructive.

3. Doing nothing for months, showing no accomplishments or results.

Consequences: You will have nothing to show your ability or competence.

4. Failing to anchor your day-to-day work to a longer-term strategy.

Consequences: If you do not have a long-term game plan, you are likely to fail.

A theme in Real-Time Leadership the authors stress is being “mindfully alert — to have insight into your own goals, those of your people and not be only concerned with what you want for yourself.”

To Kauffman, a leader will fail by:

  • Prejudging and not taking the time to analyze alternatives.
  • Focusing exclusively on his/her own development.
  • Limiting engagement to only those people who are perceived as supportive.

“These three attitudes are horribly destructive,” she underscores, adding, “The other dimensions of leadership failure include not noticing or caring about what other people need from you and just going with your reflexes, not thinking the decision over and just acting.”

Employees need to feel safe to speak up

The authors maintain, “From the smallest mom-and-pop neighbor market to Fortune 500 corporations, people need to feel psychologically safe to speak up and tell the truth.” They note that the leader who is destined to fail thinks:

  • I will make it hard for employees to raise a tough issue to me or to my team.
  • I am going to undermine you every chance I get as a team member.
  • I am going to punish you if you take a risk that doesn’t work out.

“If you do all these things,” Noble points out, “the consequence is that people will not tell you the truth or what is on their minds. So, if you are not seeing anything — not using that information — how can you possibly win?”

Never doubt yourself or fail to validate your position

“Dennis,” Kauffman observes, “you would be surprised at the people in positions of leadership who simply believe whatever they think is correct — they fail to have their views validated — and steer their company in the wrong direction. They operate on intuition, are rigid and believe whatever it is that comes into their minds.”

“And,” Noble notes, “there are situations where you want something so much as a leader that you just don’t see the reality — you know the numbers don’t work, but you still go ahead and do it because you want it so bad. That’s one of the consequences of not seeing reality for what it is. They refuse to have a healthy dose of self-doubt, or ask themselves, ‘How might I be wrong?’”

Top personality issues that can derail a leader

The authors listed several personality issues that can derail leadership:

  • Being impulsive. If you get really excited about things and then become easily disappointed, frustrated and pull out so you are not consistent, people will be unable to predict your behavior and will not believe what you say.
  • Being skeptical of everything your team is telling you, not trusting or believing anything they say. Asking, “What’s in it for them?” or “What’s their agenda?” Pushing back on everything.
  • Fearing being wrong and therefore refusing to make a decision.
  • Taking undue risks and having all the answers all the time. Thinking, “I can never make a mistake. I’m a genius.”

Real-Time Leadership has the needs of people just like my reader’s wife in mind. The authors have given readers a road map to that place called success.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to And be sure to visit


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."