A few days ago on Twitter someone put out a statement that, in her opinion, the biggest cause of leadership failure was ego. I wrote back saying it was up there, but it wasn’t the biggest cause. She wrote back asking what I thought it was and I responded that the biggest cause of leadership failure was ignorance.


by Erik Charlton via Flickr

The problem with having many conversations on Twitter is that you’re limited to 140 characters, so it’s hard to fully flesh out your opinion. The other problem is that some people get so many responses, or get caught up in delivering their own message, that at some point the conversation is probably going to end, and way too soon, unless you’re concentrating on it. I decided I wanted to explain my thoughts on it, and that’s what this is for.

When I wrote my book Embrace The Lead, I’d found a statistic that, at this point, I wish I’d remembered where I found it since I’ve been asked about it over the years. That statistic was that 85% of all those who have been put into leadership or management positions had never led anything else in their lives; being a parent doesn’t count.

That’s a staggering figure when you think about it, and yet it helps to explain why so many people are bad at it. I say that knowing that you know it because you’ve seen it, whether you’ve seen it in yourself or seen it in someone you’ve worked for or with. I don’t know anyone that says every manager they’ve ever had is good; I know few that say most of their managers were good.

I’m not going to go into what makes a good or bad manager; that’s not the topic. What I am going to do is set up the typical scenario, at least how I see it.

I’ve gone to school to learn something. I learn it well and I get a job doing it. Turns out I’m very good at that job, and thus I’m on the fast track to promotion. Now I’m promoted and I’m the manager over 10 people who are doing what I’ve been doing.

Now what? I still know how to do what I do but how do I now convey that to everyone else? I’ve never been a teacher, and the subject was easy for me because I just learned it. I don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t know it as well as I do.

I now have to lead these people that I used to work with; some of them don’t like it, some don’t care, and one likes it.

I don’t know how to evaluate talent other than to say I don’t think any of them are as good as me, otherwise they’d have been promoted.

I don’t know how to set up a schedule. I’ve never taken a vacation but they all want to take one. Sick time?

Two employees are arguing and I’m supposed to do what?

Convey my message? Why do I have to convey a message, or motivate someone else? I never needed that.

Team building? Meetings?

Wait; so-and-so is actually better than me? How’d that happen?

If you were a leader when you were young many of these things just come to you because you’ve experienced them in your past in some fashion. You already knew how to pull people together. You already knew how to mend fences and get people talking again. You understood when someone was hurt or sick. You learned how to utilize people for their strengths and when you had to take the lead. Hopefully you learned you weren’t perfect and that other people had skills that you didn’t and were willing to use them for the sake of the team, and invariably you as the leader.

Of course if you were a bad leader then your issue just might be ego. That happens with people who were bullies; they learned that “might is right”, even if that’s not the case. Those days are gone, yet bullying still persists; I hate bullies.

Leadership and management skills can be taught; egos can only be broken, then hopefully adjusted. There are far more resources available to learn how to become a good leader than there are in dealing with ego. Then again, there has to be if you’re looking at a figure like 85%.

In my opinion, ego is a byproduct of ignorance; I don’t think you can have it the other way around but I could be wrong. So I put it out to you in two questions. One, what do you see as the biggest reason for leadership failure? Two, can ignorance be a byproduct of ego, and if so how?

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