Leaders usually fail for three reasons. Watching the downfall of a leader is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. Living it, as I have, is even worse.

Richard Nixon - Downfall of a Leader
Leaders who lead from a position of authority rather than a position of mutual respect and admiration are bound to fail. (Tweet That)

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If you have failed as a leader, read this as a reminder of why and learn from it anew. If you are a successful leader, read this as a warning. If you want to be a leader someday, let this be a call to rise above these typical downfalls and lead with unfailing character and principles.

In middle school, I learned the concept of transitive relationship. If A = B and B = C, then A = C.

Leaders are people. People fail. Therefore, leaders fail. Great leaders fail a lot.

But great leaders also avoid these three common downfalls which often lead to fatal failure, the types that end careers, destroy relationships, and are eventually studied by others as examples of how not to lead.

Here are the three most common leadership downfalls. Stay tuned Wednesday for how you can avoid each of these downfalls.

1. Fear-based leadership

Leaders who lead from a position of authority rather than a position of mutual respect and admiration are bound to fail.

Keep in mind, I’m writing this from the standpoint of Western business and relationships, not third-world dictators, so if you are a third-world dictator, just keep on doing what you’re doing. Fear works great for you. For the rest of us, however, fear-based leadership drives team members, spouses, and friends away.

Ultimately, fear is a negative emotion. Sure, in the right circumstances it can be used effectively. It can drive needed change quickly. Fear can help you escape danger and fear of losing your job might cause you to start showing up on time, but consistent fear in the workplace or any relationship will eventually deteriorate performance. Fear-based leaders will be forced out. Earning a reputation as a fear-based leader in today’s workplace is career limiting to say the least.

And do I even need to explain how it doesn’t work in a marriage or friendship?

2. Money

Yes, the very thing a leader has worked for in many cases can eventually be his or her downfall. Leaders must be driven to do the right thing, not necessarily the most profitable in the short-term. Remember Joey Prusak, the Dairy Queen manager who essentially kicked out a potential customer for stealing $20 from a blind man? Of course, his first responsibility as a leader is making a profit for his company and to pay his team members. But beyond that, it is his duty to display leadership of character.

If he had been motivated primarily by money, he would have lost the respect of those around him. In the long run, that lost respect would have eroded any chances he had of leading effectively.

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You should make money…and plenty of it. I hope you are wildly successful financially. But when your decisions are motivated entirely by personal finances, it will eventually be your downfall. Your team will eventually lose respect for you. Your boss and other leaders in the company will question your motives for every decision. You will lose all influence and will soon found yourself needing a job.

Don’t let money become the sole driver of your decisions. It is a factor…a big factor…but must be paired with morals, ethics, and the long-term interests of all those involved.

3. Ego

Look at you…you’re a leader!

Big office with a view, bigger salary, company car, perks, perks, and more perks. Not to mention…you get to tell other people what to do! Could it get any better than this?

This was my biggest downfall. In fact, it was the sole reason I first failed as a leader. It seemed like I woke up one day at the age of 27 and had more than thirty people working under me. Two years prior, our company was a five-person operation above a garage. Now, I was leading large numbers of people. And it got to my head.

In his book, Give & Take, Adam Grant notes an interesting phenomenon with CEOs who are ego-driven. Each year in their annual reports, the picture of themselves gets bigger and bigger. It’s a subtle way of increasing their self-importance.

One of the telltale signs of ego-driven leaders, Grant points out, is the use of the pronouns, “I,” “my,” and “mine” in reference to company projects and possessions.

How you can avoid these downfalls

Don’t miss part two, How to Avoid the Three Most Common Leadership Downfalls…Coming Wednesday!
If you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to my RSS feed or get posts via email (and get my free book as a bonus) so you don’t miss it.

Have you fallen victim to any of these downfalls or known a leader who has?  


Text me anytime at (260) 217-4619.

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8 thoughts on “The 3 Most Common Downfalls of Leaders | Fear-Based, Ego, Money

  1. Dan Erickson says:

    I have not been an official leader, but have let fear get in the way of my own personal growth in the past.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Good one.

      I think that fear often manifests itself in the other categories. Fear of losing money, fear of embarrassment (ego), and then transferring that fear to others (fear-based leadership).

  2. Katherine Leicester says:

    Leaders feel the weight of responsibility, so they can get an inflated sense of their own ability. Natural, avoidable if you are aware (and have a great team around you).

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      So true! The weight can crush you if you’re not careful.

    2. Ken Porter says:

      Responsibility is not necessarily a sign of ability. It’s a sign of trust. Leaders must remember that.

      1. Katherine Leicester says:

        Truer words were never spoken, Ken, thanks.

  3. James Lawther says:

    Matt, I can’t help but think that money, fear and ego will get you so far and probably quite quickly, but so far isn’t nearly far enough. As they say:

    “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Good points. All three can be useful. I want a leader who isn’t afraid to use fear occasionally when necessary, who does want to make money and who has enough ego as to not be self-defeatist.

      Like all good things, swinging too far on the pendulum becomes a weakness.

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