What causes leaders to lose their way?

Before people take on leadership roles, they should first ask themselves two fundamental questions: “What motivates me to lead?” and “What is the purpose of my leadership?” If honest answers to the first question are simply power, prestige, and money, leaders risk being trapped by external gratification as the source of their fulfilment. There is nothing wrong with desiring these outward symbols
as long as they are combined with a deeper desire to serve something greater than oneself.

Leaders whose goal is gaining power over others, maximising wealth, or becoming famous tend to look to other people for satisfaction and acknowledgment of their status. In public and in private, they display a high degree of narcissism. As leaders of institutions, they ultimately believe that the institution cannot survive without them because in their mind they are the institution.

Losing touch with reality

Leaders who focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction find it difficult to stay grounded. They reject the honest critic who holds a mirror to their face and speaks the truth. Instead, they surround themselves with supporters telling them what they want to hear. Over time, they lose the capacity for honest dialogue, and people learn not to confront them.

Fearing failure

Underlying these tendencies may be a fear of failure. Many leaders advance by imposing their will on others. By the time they reach the top, they may be paranoid that someone is waiting in the wings to knock them off their pedestal. Underneath their bravado lies uncertainty that they may not be suitable for such powerful leadership roles, and any day someone is going to unmask them.

To overcome their fears, they drive so hard for perfection that they are incapable of acknowledging either failures or weaknesses. When confronted with their failures, they try to cover them up or to create a rationale that convinces others these problems are not their fault. Often they look for scapegoats on whom to blame their problems, either within their organisation or outside. Through the combination of power, charisma, and communications skills, they convince others to accept these distortions, causing entire organisations to lose touch with reality. In the end, it is their organisations that suffer.

Craving success

The other side of the fear of failure is an insatiable craving for success. Most leaders want to do a good job for their organisations and to be recognised and rewarded accordingly. When they achieve success, they are given added power and enjoy the prestige that goes with it. Along the way, success can go to their heads, and they develop a sense of entitlement. At the height of their power, their success creates a deep desire to keep it going. They are prone to pushing the limits and thinking that they can get away with it.

The loneliness within

It is lonely at the top. Leaders know they are ultimately responsible and that the well-being of so many rests in their hands. If they fail, many people will get hurt. Some leaders simply run faster to ignore the mounting pressures.

Who can they share their worries with? It can be difficult to talk with subordinates or their boards of directors about their biggest problems and deepest fears. Friends outside the organisation may not understand the challenges they are facing, and sharing their doubts openly may set off rumours. Sometimes it is even difficult to share these concerns with your spouse or mentor.

As a result of this loneliness, many leaders deny their fears. They shut down their inner voice because it is too uncomfortable to hear. Instead, they start listening to the external voices pressuring them, thinking that all will be well if they can satisfy them. But the advice of outsiders is often conflicting or too painful to face, so they choose to listen only to people who reinforce their views.

Meanwhile, their work lives and personal lives grow more unbalanced. Fearing failure, they favour their work life, even saying, “My work is my life.” Eventually, they lose touch with those closest to them—their spouses, children, and best friends—or they co-opt them to their point of view. Over time, little mistakes turn into major ones. No amount of hard work can correct them. Instead of seeking wise counsel at this point, they dig a deeper hole. When the collapse comes, there is no avoiding it.

Adapted from

George, B., 2010. True north: Discover your authentic leadership (Vol. 143). John Wiley & Sons.

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