Recognising Failing Leadership   

Leadership is about mobilising stakeholders – converted into followers – to co-actualise shared, desired futures expressed as dreams (or visions), aimed at leaving behind lasting, worthy legacies. Leadership holds in their hands the fragile, precious hopes, fears, aspirations, and ideals of followers about the uncertain, unknown future, typing everyone together around a common destiny.

The very future of organisations, communities, nations and societies are predicated on the quality of leadership. Either, leadership are architects of the future by idealising and realising a desired future with followers. Or, they are victims of the future by re-actively and passively, succumbing to an imposed future of overpowering challenges, issues and problems.

Without any doubt, entities led by able, dedicated and committed leadership, demonstrating leadership excellence persistently, will dominate and inherit the future they aspire to. Why? Because they will be active architects in shaping and actualising desired futures of their own pro-active, choosing with followers.

The early recognition of signs of failing leadership, and dealing with them expeditiously, hence are of critical importance to enhance significantly the likelihood of realising a self-chosen, desired future. An ever present, critical imperative therefore exists to ‘stress test’ on an ongoing basis the presence and demonstration of leadership excellence, or not.

Recognising only failed leadership is already too late. The chances of actualising a desired future – as  entrusted to leadership – has been compromised already, maybe even irretrievably so.

Failing leadership occurs in relationship

The signs of failing leadership manifest themselves in the four relationships leadership is embedded in:

  • with him/ herself;
  • with followers;
  • with the entity they have to lead (a team, an organisation, an institution, community or society); and
  • with the context in which they have to lead.

Typically, failing leadership tends to spread like an uncontrollable, rampant virus – a deadly rot – throughout all four of the above relationships because of the systemic coupling and interdependency of the four relationships.  The more an unfolding, widening pattern of failing becomes ingrained and institutionalised in an organisation, community, nation or society, its way of doing things, the greater the snowballing magnitude of its lasting destructive, effect across all of the relationships. A single, failing leader turns into failing leadership, overall affecting all relationships at their very core.

Close on twenty major signs by which failing leadership can be recognised are elucidated below in ever widening, concentric circles from the closest relationship with himself as a leader through to his wider, all embracing, contextual relationship.

Signs of failing leadership regarding him/ herself as leader

Sign 1:   Absence of a servant leadership orientation 

The basic calling of a true leader is to serve a cause beyond himself in pursuit of the common good.  For the falling leader, the taking up of any leadership role is merely a means to his personal, benefit-seeking purpose(s): status, prestige, power, access to powerful persons, and/ or control over desirable resources and people.

He goes through the public motions of ostensibly being a servant leader, however with devious, well-camouflaged, self-serving ends in mind. Being a true leader, serving others and the common good, does not even enter into his leadership equation.   

Sign 2:   A ‘Me’ agenda

Falling leadership drives an echo-centric, self-serving agenda, played close to her chest. However, frequently the agenda is claimed publically to be, and promoted as being in everyone’s interest. Although ‘We’ language may be used, it is in only the royal sense to convey her ‘weightiness’ as THE leader. His mindset is that others, and whatever they can provide to him, are in servitude to him as the ‘much revered’ leader, and not vice versa. She reigns supreme in her kingdom as sole, undisputable monarch.   

Sign 3:   Repulsive ego-centricity

Failing leadership leader is an arrogant, boastful, abrasive, know-it-all, prima donna intoxicated by self-love, self-pride and obsessive (self-)praise. The world exists for, and revolves around herself, every second of every day. It is all about the promotion, enhancement, and protection of her self-glorifying image.

However, he can be most charming with those whose support he needs in manipulative, devious ways in order to camouflage his true intentions, and achieve his self-serving goals and ends. The proverbially iron fist in a velvet glove.

Sign 4:   Little self-awareness and –insight with unpredictable mood swings

Failing leadership has little insight into her personal impact on others through her decisions and actions, and of others on her. In any event, typically he does not care about his impact in his arrogant, ego-centric way:  “Fit in, or fly off (FIFO)”; “Here I call the shots on my terms.” Empathy does not feature in her world and vocabulary.

He is highly moody, and has erratic, unpredictable mood swings. Followers are at the mercy of his emotional outbursts, often most violent. She responds regularly, impulsively on-the-spur-of-the-moment with little upfront consideration of possible, long term consequences. After all, he is in charge and have the power.     

Signs of failing leadership regarding followers

Sign 5:   Unethical conduct

Failing leadership lacks a deeply ingrained, strong moral and ethical compass to direct and guide her thinking, decisions and actions.  She is driven by expediency and opportunism. Anything goes, as long as it serves his ego-centric, opportunistic agenda.

Consequently, he is untrustworthy, unpredictable, dishonest and deceptive in his relationship with others. Unashamedly she breaches agreements, and does not hold promises – empty in any event – if they do not further her agenda.  In short, he is morally bankrupt. Without any integrity, he does not even remotely consider stepping down if she is ‘caught out’ because as ‘mighty’ leader she is above the law and everyone. He is never at fault.

Concurrently she condones – actively and  passively – the immoral and unethical conduct of her followers as long their actions serve her ends, and protect, strengthen, and promote her position and image. If not, he then disclaims them to be unethical and immoral – ostensibly on ethical and moral grounds – but because they are not promoting his cause.    

Sign 6:   Lack of a unifying, shared, inspiring vision

No truly inspiring, desired, shared future is imagined and pursued by failing leadership around which stakeholders as prospective followers can mobilise and align passionately. Hence, no sense of a common destiny exits amongst stakeholders and followers because of the lack of a unifying vision.  They are adrift on the ever-changing ocean of an uncertain future with no intended destination.

Or, if a vision is conceived and propagated by the failing leadership, it pertains only to a preferential, elusive group of followers, leadership’s exclusive ’clan/ tribe’. Divide and rule is the name of the game to retain power, to protect the ‘chosen’, and weaken opposition.

Sign 7:   Weak subordinate co-leadership/ followers

Failing leadership is too weak to admit to her fatal flaws that have to remain hidden at all costs. He therefore surrounds himself with even weaker, boundlessly, devoted leaders and followers. They are required to be docile, ‘yes’ persons who blatantly ignore any ethical considerations in serving their revered leader. They function as echo chambers to and amplifiers of the leader’s self-centered wishes, desires and aspirations.

This leader is the sole and ultimate savior/ messiah, and arbitrator of the ultimate truth. Any resistance – especially from ethical, strong leadership in his immediate circle of influence and action – is dealt with ruthlessly,   often in underhand ways if the risks of public exposure, displeasure and counter-mobilisation are too great.

Sign 8:   Demeaning and disrespectful interpersonal conduct

Failing leadership plays persons, and not the ball (i.e., the matter at hand). Especially if she is a toxic leader, she deliberately undermines the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy – physically, psychosocially, socio-culturally and/or spiritually –  of those dependent on her for endorsement, resources and enablement.

He treats others with disrespect and distain because they are merely expendable pawns in the self-centered game he is playing where winning is everything, and the winner takes all. No feedback, opposition and criticism are tolerated.

Sign 9:   Constant turnover in the leadership team/ group

Failing leadership is unable to build a long term, stable team around herself because of the constant turnover of team members, given their disdainful treatment by her, and the threat stronger leaders poses to her. Strong leadership posing a treat are explicitly or implicitly discredited. Or, rendered seemingly incapable by unreasonable work demands and unrealistic workloads.

However, he rewards, charms, wines and dines those persons he depends on for on expert input; those he needs to make him look good; and those he requires favours from. However, the moment her dependency on them falls away, they are fair game to be discarded.

Sign 10:   Negative energies in followers resulting in a poisonous, sick and divisive interpersonal climate

Through his thinking, decisions and actions, failing leadership infuses actual and prospective followers with increasingly negative energies such as anger, frustration, fear, suspicion, violence, skepticism, hate, alienation, disillusionment, pessimism, insecurity and disempowerment. These negative energies infect all interpersonal relationships and interactions. Increasingly the interpersonal climate becomes poisonous, sick and divisive.

Inter alia, this negativity arises from, and is reinforced by, the lack of a unifying, shared, inspiring vision, and hence an ambiguous, uncertain future; continuous, energy sapping, manipulative power games; ongoing treachery; bloody feuds; and the inhumane treatment of others by the leader as merely means to be bartered in the game he is playing to achieve his self-centred ends.

Sign 11:   ‘Blackmailing’ followers

Paradoxically, frequently the failing ‘Me only’ leader, because of her fatal weaknesses, is held ransom by the unrealistic, parochial interests, needs and ideals of followers – her ‘clan/ tribe’. She requires their ongoing, legitimising endorsement – her license to lead – in order to remain in power and/ or have access to resources followers control.  He lives under the constant threat that followers will remove their legitimizing endorsement if he does not acquis to what they need, want, and demand as entitlement.

Hence she is at the mercy of followers’ forever changing whims, wishes, desires and ambitions. He has to seduce and sweeten them by giving them undeserving access to opportunities, resources, networks and power. Inversely, and paradoxically – in spite of her compromising weaknesses – this gives power back to him as leader over his followers being the sole controlling, dispenser of the aforementioned desirables.    

Signs of failing leadership regarding the entities they lead

Sign 12:   Seamless merging of leadership’s ego and the entity being led

The ego of the failing leadership and the entity he is leading, becomes a seamless one. She identifies so closely with the entity she is leading, that no clear boundary exits between personal and entity interests, aspirations and needs. They are one, each in the service of the other. Critique or praise of the one, is a critique or praise of the other.    

Sign 13:   Self-centered power abuse

Failing leadership uses his power – whatever its source, e.g., positional, expertise, control over desired resources and/ or access to high profile networks – to protect and entrench his position;  to promote his personal agenda; to enforce and impose his views and decisions; and to take action against stronger leaders and any opposing parties by eliminating, sidelining, disempowering and/ or dehumanising them. Power becomes an intoxicating end in itself for herself by herself.

Sign 14:   Accountability avoidance

He creates deliberately confusion, ambiguity and unpredictability in order to make the attribution of personal accountability and responsibility for decisions, actions, outcomes and impact to him ambiguous and easy to shift. As leader, she blames others and/ or circumstances, being the helpless victim thereof. Or, makes followers the scapegoats. Or, vilifies the opposition as saboteurs of his lofty and pure intentions. She is never to blame. However, he unashamedly claims credit for followers’ successes.

Sign 15:   Glaring absences during turnkey crises and critical moments of truth

When make-or-break crises hit, or future-related, critical moments of truth emerge, he is absent intentionally. The risks of him being shown up as weak, incompetent, and clueless if he is present and in charge, are just too great. She ensures that she is a mere criticising, passive spectator; not being a contributing player at all.

Others must take the accountability and responsibility – read, the blame – for events and their impact, if the fall-out is negative. It is not his ‘monkey’ to deal with.

Signs of failing leadership regarding the context 

Sign 16:   Mismatched to the requisite level of complexity

Failing leadership cannot handle the requisite complexity of her role, and the context in which she has to function. He pulls the requisite level down to the level he is comfortable with, and can be reasonably competent at. Mostly, down to a day-to-day, tactical or transactional, not a strategic, level because of his ongoing wheeling and dealing to achieve his own, short term ends. Also, because of his on-the-spur-of-the-moment, impulsive responses.   

Sign 17:   Creation of a make-believe reality

Failing leadership creates and maintains a pseudo-reality that suits his interest, needs, aspirations and ends, enabling him to deal with the complexity that he can handle; hides his weaknesses; pacifies and meets the parochial needs and wants of followers; as well as paints his opposition as immoral, vile conspirators against his holy cause and pursuit. She distorts and wraps reality in order to make it cope-able, by leveraging the full range of psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalisation, projection and distortion.     

She falsifies and massages facts to suit her. Therefore, he is never wrong or at fault. She is a past master of post-truths and falsehoods. In his doublespeak mouth, they sound truthful because he is the sole arbitrator of truth, and referential shaper and controller of reality.

Truth becomes secondary in the service and strengthening of prevailing biases, prejudices, stereotypes, conventions and interests that fit her, and her subservient ‘clan/ tribe’. Not rationality, but raw emotionality reigns supreme on which he capitalises fully.

Sign 18:   Fragmented, shallow thinking

Failing leadership lacks big picture thinking in his area of supposed accountability. At most, she either puts a few pieces of the overall picture together in over-simplistic, partial and stand-alone pictures. Or, throws multiple pieces randomly and chaotically together, resulting in a bewildering, confusing, bedazzling complexity. He thrives on past success recipes that have passed their sell-by date.

No integrated, deep thinking is demonstrated that covers the territory concerned comprehensively and systemically by including all relevant variables with their critical interdependencies and operating principles. He also is inconsistent in his thinking which at best is erratic, whimsical and short term, driven by and based on singular events.

She offers easy answers, bedazzling everyone with the speed, decisiveness and ease she is addressing complex issues.  A most tenuous connection exists, if at all, between her thinking and a vision of a desired future, shared by all.

Sign 19:   Vulnerability to management fads

She follows the latest leadership/ management fashions, fads and folderol in a slavish search for THE silver bullet that would make her appear up to date and capable. He also abandons them at will as the public tide turns against a specific flavor of the month. She talks the talk, but does not walk the walk. It is all about skillful posturing, facading and spin doctoring in order to resonate with the ruling whims of the moment.

A call to action

Let us all – regardless of our station in life – courageously and pro-actively identify, expose, and remove falling leaders and leadership at all levels and in all positions with all of the means at our disposal before they become failed leadership. Our very future – entrusted to our leadership – is at stake.

The prize to pay for failing leadership just is too great. Failing leadership does not only compromise our present future, but also so that of upcoming, future generations.

Theo H Veldsman – Work Psychologist

Visiting Professor at, and former HOD, Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, School of Business and Economics, University of Johannesburg

Strategic People Effective Associate, InavitIQ


Do you recognise some areas in yourself as a leader or areas in your team that need improvement?

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Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator

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