Why Our Leaders Fail Us and Why We Fail Them

There is a word that seems to strike fear into the hearts of many a manager and unprepared leader:  Feedback.  Perhaps you may agree that it is not fear that grips you so much as it is resentment and frustration towards receiving feedback.

If you are one of those that hesitate at the assessment feedback door, a question that needs to be asked is why?  Why are you so resistant to feedback? 

The underlying premise of this article is:  Why are our leaders failing us?  Why do we sometimes fail them?  And equally relevant is the question:  Why do we sometimes fail as leaders?

Let’s address these questions.

From a very interesting research paper published by the American Psychological Association, Inc. entitled: When Our Identities Are Mistaken: Reaffirming Self-Conceptions Through Social Interaction by William B. Swann, Jr., and Craig A. Hill of the University of Texas, we gain some valuable insight into why we may be so resistant to feedback:

“…when people receive self-discrepant (discrepant – unexpected difference between things; a difference between things that should be the same) feedback, they will actively strive to verify and confirm their self-conceptions.  Swann begins by assuming that people’s self-concepts are an important means through which they predict and control their world. Hence, threatening people’s self-conceptions should threaten their perceptions of control. When people’s perceptions of control are threatened, they increase their efforts to acquire highly diagnostic information.  Since people regard self-confirmatory feedback as more diagnostic than self-disconfirmatory feedback…threatening their self-concepts should intensify their efforts to acquire self-confirmatory feedback. One way they may acquire such feedback is by working to bring their interaction partners to see them as they see themselves.”

“…[in their investigations they have found that] if people receive self-discrepant feedback and are then permitted to interact with another individual, they will attempt to verify the threatened self-conception by actively refuting the feedback. Thus, for example, the self-conceived macho man who overhears himself referred to as “that wimp” may subsequently reaffirm his self-conception by showing just how tough and ferocious he can be. By engaging in such activity, he may convince himself (and perhaps others as well) that he is the man he thought he was…”

So what we see happen is that people perceive themselves in a certain way, and when that is threatened, no matter how true the feedback, they push against it because it takes away a certain sense of control they may feel.  Sadly, this sense of control is often a mirage or illusion.  And what is so interesting is that while the very feedback they are receiving may assist them to gain more control and become more effective, they resist and avoid it like the bubonic plague. 

Feedback, from subjective and objective third parties, often provides us with an opportunity to face personal demons we have pushed down that manifest in misaligned self concepts.  Great leaders know this.  And extraordinary leaders thrive in an environment where there is a constant flow of feedback.

Ken Blanchard, renowned management consultant and author, says it this way:

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.

Let’s consider this example: 

Imagine you are a baker and have decided to make a new and interesting cake.  You are convinced that by adding a secret ingredient to a mixture that is already popular, you are going to blow away the competition and will have people lining up outside your door wanting more of your new cake. 

A few hours later you have your new cake ready and begin serving it to customers.  Only, they don’t seem to be as happy as you thought they would be.  And the queues and queues of people you were expecting have turned into an unhappy trickle.

But you were convinced that your new cake with its secret ingredient was going to be a phenomenon. 

In this situation, what would be the obvious and logical thing to do?  We feel it would be to approach your clientele and explore why they were not happy with the product.  Would you argue if the client said the cake was not sweet enough or there wasn’t enough chocolate on it?  Only a very bad business person would do that.  Rather, and fairly obviously, you would note their comments and try and improve the recipe. 

If that is what you would do as a baker, why are you so unwilling to do that on yourself?

Let’s conclude this portion of our discussion with this:  “A power struggle collapses when you withdraw your energy from it. Power struggles become uninteresting to you when you change your intention from winning to learning about yourself.” Gary Zukav, best-selling author.

The question of failure of leadership came up in a discussion with a friend the other night.  He shared how he had been asked to fill a particular leadership position, but that he had been unable to function because of a lack of support.  This resulted in such frustration that he has ended up relinquishing the post.

But were those that did not give him support entirely at fault?

As I questioned my friend a little further, it became apparent that while his superiors had not supported him, they were not completely to blame for my friend not receiving the assistance he needed.

What had happened was that he had given them feedback, but in a very poor form – he had asked them, verbally, for this or that that he felt would help.  A quote that has served me especially well, but also that I sometimes forget, goes:  “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” From this we see that verbal communication of ideas and feedback can easily be forgotten by its recipients.  Visual communication of this, whether it be via email and a simple hand written note, is much more effective for keeping something in the front of a person’s mind.  And allowing them to have a multi-sensory experience creates true understanding. 

Where my friend had failed was in giving only verbal feedback to those he was asking for support.  As we discussed, this quote came up and he realised the need for better communication of his frustrations and also potential solutions.

We live in a fast paced, very busy world.  We need constant reminders to keep us focused, and verbal communication just isn’t enough.

Another reason we (and others) may fail as leaders is encapsulated by this from Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music – a post in the Royal Household of the Sovereign of the United Kingdom.

“If you don’t get feedback from your performers and your audience, you’re going to be working in a vacuum.”

Decisions need to be made in an environment of rich, solid information.  If we are “working in a vacuum”, how can we make decisions? 

We need to invite feedback on an ongoing basis to ensure quality performance. 

To conclude:  Understand that feedback will create a platform for wonderful growth and change as we maturely engage and receive it. 

Have you ever wondered why our some of our political or business leaders are seemingly failing us?  It may be because we don’t speak up and give them the feedback they need.  And perhaps it is because they don’t have ears to hear the feedback that would make our country or organization move forward successfully.

This article was featured in the


Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.





Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on CliffCentral.com, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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