Mentoring Experienced Leaders When
Experienced Leaders Fail

by Jeffrey D. Yergler

Though I am not a connoisseur of classical or modern movies, and though I rarely make it out to watch the latest release, there is one movie that stands out in my mind as the best I have ever seen. I classify this movie as quintessentially superlative not only because of the quality of the acting (James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Alex Montoya, Peter Bravos, and William Aldrich just to name a few) but because of the timeless and poignant message the movie conveys. The movie, The Flight of the Phoenix, tells the story of a bush pilot, played by Stewart, who flew oil-company employees to Bengazi. The plane meets with a sand storm of immense magnitude and crashes in the middle of the Sahara. The surviving crew does everything they can to stay alive in the searing, relentless heat. One of the survivors, a model airplane designer, makes the audacious and inane suggestion that a new, smaller plane be fabricated from the wreckage of the old. The captain, Frank Towns, played by Stewart, is, at first, incredulous but eventually realizes that the model designer's plan is their only hope of surviving. Despite the overwhelming odds and the constant infighting, those strong enough to work eventually fabricate the new plane that ultimately flies the remaining survivors to safety.

The Flight of the Phoenix has always been for me a metaphor for redemption, for resurrection, for renewal and revitalization. It has been for me a siren song for emerging out of suffering, intense pain and personal struggle in order to arrive at a place that is once again hopeful and joy filled yet deeper, broader and replete with new meaning and richer significance. In other words, the crashing and the resulting wreckage that happens in life is never the final word but rather the seedbed of the new, that is, if one can see through the wreckage of the old to the possibility of the new ... of what could be. Unfortunately, because many fail to see the hope of renewal when they look into the reality of their own demise and failure, they cannot and will not make the attempt to rebuild. They begin a downward spiral that leaves them without joy, without courage and, most devastatingly, without hope.

We know the stories of these men and women do we not? They are the stories of people who cannot overcome the shame, guilt, fear and remorse of their failures as leaders. They choose humiliation rather than humility. They opt to be controlled by what they perceive to be the shame of their humanity rather than seeing and acknowledging their frailty as humans as a place of comfort, stability and awareness. As a friend of mine recently said to me as I wrestled with a deep sense of shame and embarrassment in the face of my own failure, "Jeffrey, welcome to the human race!" Up until that moment, the fact was that I did NOT want to be welcomed into the human race. As a leader, I wanted and needed to live above the fray, above the vicissitudes and common vagaries that plagued most men and women. My own failure was ironically an authentic invitation to join the human race. It was an invitation to deal with reality rather than live in a fantasy that ultimately could not be sustained even by my most heroic and virtuous of efforts. This failure was nothing less than a priceless invitation to experience a new way of living and therefore, a new way of leading. I had no way of knowing at the time that the house of cards I had built needed to collapse ... needed to implode in order to discover my true freedom and joy as a leader.

Yet, despite having said this, experiencing failure as a leader is NEVER anything a leader would choose to endure. In fact, leaders do most anything and everything that is humanly possible to avoid "a meteoric-like falling to earth" even when that falling ultimately proves to open the door for a new way of living as a free, fearless and authentic leader. I am not suggesting that leaders, in order to be fully effective, authentic and transformational, must pass through the gauntlet of suffering and humiliation in order to be truly effective. What I am suggesting is that for many leaders, failure, whether personal or organizational, provides an alchemic environment whereby the leader can potentially become fundamentally grounded and congruent ... two indispensable components to effective leadership.

Unfortunately, most of our organizational cultures have yet to learn to deal redemptively with leadership or executive failures. Once a public figure or organizational leader is revealed to be thoroughly human, they are summarily tossed aside as recalcitrant and inveterate failures. In the last two weeks I have read and heard the stories of two men who have become social pariahs almost overnight: world champion downhill skier, Bode Miller and the CEO of RadioShack, David Edmondson. These "incredible disappointments" who once held so much promise and carried the hopes of many upon their shoulders, have now been found to be, well, human ... prone to compromise, hubris, indifference, slothfulness, lethargy and deceit like the rest of us. Their stars have fallen and, in many respects, rightfully so. Yet, like so many others, this deterioration of public reputation and perhaps loss of self-respect may, in reality, open the doors for new possibilities for influence and legitimate leverage.

Understanding Leadership Failures Within Organizations

I define a leadership failure as a strategic, tactical and personal lapse in judgment originating from the leader's disconnection form his/her emotional and intellectual framework. These failures are strategic because they affect an entire organizational and/or social system. They are tactical because they affect the leader's ability to lead in the day-to-day. They are often catastrophic because they often permanently "close the door" on the leader's role within a specific organizational context.

Leaders can also experience indirect failure, that is, a failure that ends up "in their lap" but is the result of the failure of others. Leadership failures can also be the result of organizational and even cultural anxiety. These leadership failures are inextricably connected to the level of anxiety within a culture. In anxious cultures, people are generally weary, protective, fearful and demanding. This collective anxiety is easily focused on the most vulnerable and the most visible within society: those who lead publicly and privately. When people and organizations are anxious they take it out on their leaders. Systemic organizational and cultural anxiety often makes victims out of gifted and talented leaders who get embroiled in the maelstrom of deeply embedded social-organizational-cultural anxiety.

My focus is not on the leaders who are the innocent victims of externally imposed anxiety but rather those leaders make faulty choices which profoundly damage their own capacity to lead. Contrary to what we read about leaders who experience personal and professional failures, leadership failures are rarely the end but the beginning of REAL leadership.

I am convinced that one of the primary reasons experienced leaders experience failure is that, at some point in the exercise of their leadership responsibilities, they become detached from reality. They become incongruent or divided in their personal and professional lives. Often times, this division is never the result of some sudden decision or crises but rather a slow and surreptitious process over time that slowly and almost imperceptibly drives a wedge between one's core identity (the place of uncompromised wholeness and integrity) and one's chosen behavior to appease transient desires. When we become divided at this intersection, the decisions we make can easily lead to significant failures. These failures lead inevitably and inexorably to brokenness, pain, loss and suffering.

One of the best books I have "ever" read on this matter of maintaining an uncompromised core as a leader is Anthony DeMello's powerful book, Awareness. Most people, argues DeMello, suffer from a chronic state of unawareness or "sleeping" to use DeMello's words. They are either unwilling or unable to perceive reality because they simply cannot bear the message of truth that reality would speak to them. As a result, they choose to live in a state of personal denial and find themselves stuck in what Bunyan calls "the slough of despond" or a severely compromised state of existence where the more you struggle to extricate yourself from your own deceptions and unrealities the deeper you slide into them and the deeper you slide into them, the further they are perpetuated and accommodated until you are literally drowning in a sea of sustained personal deception and chronic fear.

You would think, as does much of the "business" world (based on the way the business world treats organizational failures they tend to shoot their own wounded), that these failures are terminal failures. Now, it is true that many failures in leadership are often terminal failures as they relate to the particular organizational context in which the failure took place. But they are never absolute and terminal failures beyond that particular organizational context. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that there are tremendous challenges that await the leader who is attempting to recover from a personal or professional collapse. A primary macro challenge comes from a society and certainly a business culture that has not yet learned how to embrace the failure of its leaders Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld (Sonnenfeld, 2002) identifies ten reasons why this is the case.

  1. Our society so worships success that we are afraid of associating with a possible contagion of failure.

  2. The self-esteem cost of failure is so painful our whole identity can be imperiled by even acknowledging defeat.

  3. The victims of defeat are angry with themselves and ashamed.

  4. The victims of failure often believe that they can disguise their defeat by superficial wordsmithing.

  5. Others around the victim are similarly embarrassed.

  6. People may think they lack sufficient resources to take on the restoration campaign.

  7. The lack of knowledge about recovering from failure creates a circle of ignorance.

  8. The double-edged sword of celebrity may create liability out of a former asset.

  9. Elevation and celebrity, however, is never guaranteed to be permanent.

  10. High-profile successful people are often used to believing themselves self-reliant in sharing their advice and resources with others.

How To Respond Redemptively to Leadership Failures

I have identified three broad areas where failure tends to occur with those in positions of organizational leadership. First, externally imposed failures. Here leaders become the lightening rod or scapegoat for systemic organizational anxiety and stress. While possessing little control over the ebb and flow of destructive macro organizational pressures, these leaders are demoted and replaced as a means of easing the tension felt throughout the system. Second, internally imposed failures. Here leaders, through their own decisions and subsequent actions, inadvertently or willfully compromise inviolate organizational processes or core values. Third, personal character and value failures. These failures are the result of leaders making personal choices that compromise their own integrity, self-respect and profoundly and perhaps irretrievably damage the capacity of others to trust and follow them.

As a consultant who values organizations, organizational leaders and understands the critical intersection where authenticity and humanity meet in a way that creates transformational leadership, I would advocate for a redemptive approach to each of these three areas of leadership failures noted in the preceding paragraph.

Organizations, far from casting-off struggling and demoralized leaders, should commit their resources and energy to help leaders rebuild a more authentic leadership self from the wreckage of the old self. This is the critical and generative work of any organization that is, more often than not, chronically undervalued, eschewed and completely missed. Yet, if someone within the organization possesses a vision for what could be built in the lives of men and women who have discovered, perhaps painfully, their inclusion into the human race, deep and lasting change could be birthed that would position many of these leaders for incredible influence in new ways. Though this impact might not take place within the organization they once led, it would nonetheless be an impact that would inexorably be felt by many who were struggling to discover and follow their true selves within the context of organizational life.

Organizations who are willing to seriously and courageously engage ways to respond to the foibles and failures of their leaders, managers and other valued staff members, would do well to embed the following philosophical reflections and practical processes into their organizational HR infrastructure.

  • Leaders are human beings and thus prone to the same personal struggles and inconsistencies, fears and dubious motives that affect and create conflict within every human being. No leader is immune. No leader operates consistently above selfishness and self-promoting performance.

  • Failure is a common experience for any leader who eagerly aspires to make an impact in the people and processes of any organization.

  • The experience of failure, whether it begins with a personal failure and leads to a deficit in public/organizational performance or begins with an organizational lapse that inexorably leads to a very personal impact, can often sink deeply into the leader's sense of self-worth, shame and embarrassment.

  • Organizations should commit their resources to support the recovery of the leader even though that leader may never step foot again into the organization. This action is indicative of an extremely mature and healthy organization.

  • Those resources should include supporting (through people, time and money) the personal, professional and organizational restoration and recovery of the leader ... whatever that restoration and recovery looks like as it emerges contextually from the life of the leader, his or her family and larger circle of friends. Though the organization may not be able to commit long-term resources to the leader, they nonetheless initiate and launch the process. This is an incredible symbol of hope and possibility to the individual leader as well as a significant positive for the larger organizational culture. This action says "we not only understand people and performance but we also want to be involved, as much as possible, with those who have helped fashion and shape our organization."

  • Where possible, slowly reintegrate the leader back into the organizational culture and surround him or her with people who understand the critical role of support, encouragement and accountability.

  • Where it is not possible for the leader to make their way back into the organization, stay in close contact with the leader in the months that follow the departure.

In conclusion, I would congratulate ANY organization that responds proactively to its leadership in this way. Actually, it would be an incredible statement of care and support ... two qualities that are, more often than not, missing from organizational cultures today. Moreover, what would be most impressive is the fact that organizations which responded in this manner to one another, would be displaying a deeper understanding of human nature and the redemptive responsibility of the organization when confronted with its own humanity.

Notes:

Sonnenfeld, J.A. (2002). Deciphering executive failures. In R. Silzer (Ed), The 21st century executive: Innovative practices for building leadership at the top, 1st Ed. (pp. 3-18). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Jeff Yergler lives in University Place, Washington and is Principal for Integer Leadership Consulting (www.integerleadership.com). Jeff can be reached at jdy@integerleadership.com or by phone at: 253-230-1024.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership III in The CEO Refresher Archives

   


Copyright 2006 by Jeff Yergler. All rights reserved.

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